Mosque Alert playwright who used Naperville as setting comes to town

by Susan Frick Carlman, Naperville Sun, 4/19/15

The melding of ethnic, religious and social traditions has always fascinated Jamil Khoury. Born to a Syrian father and Polish mother, the playwright and filmmaker grew up in Mount Prospect and later settled in Chicago, where he founded the theater production company Silk Road Rising. He wasn't very familiar with Naperville, until the city emerged as the setting for his most recent play, "Mosque Alert."

Khoury came this week to the community that helped inspire the under-construction stage production, a fictionalized look at American Muslims' efforts to establish community worship spaces in the post-9/11 era. His aim for the pair of appearances at Naperville Library locations, the first of four visits planned in the city, is to collect feedback from local audiences about the play and its messages. The sessions are titled "Triangulation: Mosque battles, theatre and civic engagement."

The production, which had a debut last month at downstate Knox College, draws from assorted real-life influences. Among them is the locally based Irshad Learning Center, which filed a successful federal lawsuit in 2010 after the DuPage County Board declined to authorize a mosque on 75th Street just east of Naperville's corporate limits.

Initially inspired by the attempt to open the so-called Ground Zero mosque in lower Manhattan, Khoury said he was looking into similar instances when he discovered local cases that included the Irshad effort.

"The discrimination against proposed mosques was so above-board and blatant and transparent," Khoury said during a session Wednesday night at the Nichols Library branch. "The presence of a mosque in the community somehow poses an existential threat: 'They will kill us, they will harm us.'"

Part of the purpose in Khoury's visits, which also included a scheduled engagement Thursday evening at the 95th Street Library, is to determine whether he got the details right. The play tells of the Masjid Al Ulama organization's attempt to convert the former Nichols Library site on Washington Street into a 100,000-square-foot mosque. That entailed consulting various city leaders as the narrative took shape.

Khoury said he and his partner, Malik Gillani, met with Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Nicki Anderson and Downtown Naperville Alliance Executive Director Katie Wood, who suggested the old Nichols location for the play's mosque proposal. They sat down with city staff, he said, to ensure the features of the fictional building proposal would fit into local zoning guidelines. "They were initially kind of cautiously intrigued," and then showed excitement for the production as they learned more, he said.

And the pair met with longtime Mayor A. George Pradel, who made it very clear that he sees no place for religious intolerance and other forms of discrimination in the city, Khoury said.

"We were enormously moved by the passion with which he spoke of this," he said.

Asked whether the portrayals in the 21-minute video clip "Meet Mosque Alert" shared with the attendees Wednesday struck a chord of familiarity, some of those in the audience shared that the characters resonated on various levels. Palestinian-born Awad Paul Sifri, a 36-year resident, said characters who display palpable unease with the local presence of Islam resembled individuals he occasionally encountered during his corporate career.

"When people are ready to speak their mind … they tell you what they really believe," Sifri said.

For audience member Paul E. Sjordal, some of the video's passages hit close to home. Sjordal related that a superior officer once explained to him comprehensively how prejudiced his views were, even though he didn't realize he harbored them.

"Now I consider myself a recovering racist," Sjordal said. "You should never deny that it's part of you, because it never goes away."

Participants in Wednesday's discussion offered suggestions as well as experiences. The character Emily Baker, a Naperville homemaker, should exhibit more fondness for her curmudgeonly spouse, one said; better clarity of the urgency to build the downtown mosque would help, another advised.

The process already has yielded changes for the play. The cast, initially comprised of two fictional families, now includes three households. The personalities of the characters have grown more complex and nuanced, Khoury said, the initial exaggerations and hard edges softened as each player's role in the narrative matures.

And the evolution will continue, even beyond the official world premiere scheduled at Silk Road Rising's headquarters in Chicago's Loop a year from now. Khoury said North Central College will bring the production home with a stage presentation in January 2017.

"We have quite a trajectory over the next two years, but it will eventually come to Naperville," he said.

He finds tremendous value in hearing what the public thinks of the play and its ever-changing details. He's intrigued by the sparks of recognition that emerge in audiences as they meet the fictional people he has created, and their strengths and flaws.

"We are forever seeing our own lives in the lives of other people. That's the beauty of empathy," Khoury said. "I think that's part of the power and the beauty of storytelling: that we find ourselves in other people's lives."