Silk Road Rising's Mosque Alert enlists the global community

A play in progress finds six characters in search of a conversation.

By Deanna Isaacs, Chicago Reader, 3/25/2013

Silk Road Rising cofounder Jamil Khoury says the uproar over Manhattan's Ground Zero mosque inspired both his new play in progress, "Mosque Alert," and his attempt to crowdsource the playwriting process via a Web page.

"I wanted to start a conversation," Khoury says. And he did.

He started with six monologues, each of them anchored in a character and steeped in issues that include homophobia, immigration, and women's rights. Then he let them crash into each other in "conflict scenes" resulting in lines of dialogue like "Muslim men should be the ones wearing veils—over their dicks."

The "Mosque Alert" project is an ambitious undertaking, a nine-step process built around "civic engagement" and intended to culminate in a full-length play and a film. Khoury's already been laboring on it for two years, and what it's yielded so far is not a plot but a situation: two families—one Christian, one Muslim—caught up in a battle over a proposal to build a mosque in Naperville. (That would be in suburban DuPage County, where, in fact, battles over two mosque-building proposals are currently making their way through the courts.)

It has also produced a library of videos that includes a brief biography for each of the six characters, along with individual riffs—developed in collaboration with the actors—on topics such as "family drama" and "being an American." Anyone with a computer and Internet access can view these minidramas and, if they choose, participate in the process by leaving comments on the site. Khoury, who believes this online workshopping is a "theater first" and "the next frontier in new-play development," takes them all into consideration and periodically weighs in himself.

Although the potential online audience is enormous, the numbers so far are relatively modest: 11,000 viewings, and a little over 200 comments. (Obscene or obscure postings are weeded out; Khoury says they've been few.) But the geographic spread is impressive. People are watching "Mosque Alert" scenes everywhere from the Caribbean to the Middle East, including countries that routinely engage in censorship. "The fact that Silk Road is so small removes us from anyone's radar," Khoury says, and "people in those countries are clicking on the videos. They're not commenting, but the fact that they're watching from beginning to end tells me that there's a certain curiosity. I think that's great, because we're having conversations you can't legally have in places like Saudi Arabia."

What visitors to the website get is an episodic and intimate look at the lives of a half dozen mostly attractive characters, caught up in a troubled situation that you might be able to relate to. You could have an intellectual position on that situation, and that might fuel your interest, but at this stage, the appeal feels a lot like the draw of a really good soap opera. These two fictional families are very watchable, and watching them might be addictive.

Or the vignettes might flop right over into the thing that Khoury is most afraid of: the preachy political correctness and didacticism of the after-school special. It's a real danger, as each character is battling not only the mosque controversy but the stereotypical personal history he or she has been dealt. The Christian family, the Bakers, includes a hard-right father who's running for mayor, a quasi-liberated mother, a liberal gay son, and an adopted-from-China daughter who's had a bad experience with a Muslim boyfriend. The Muslim family, the Khans, is made up of a beleaguered husband who happens to be the imam of the mosque in question, his less conciliatory wife, a pharmacist, and their two young (and unseen) children.

This is a recipe for glaze-over that sharp dialogue, good direction, astute editing, and fine acting pretty much trump so far. The videos benefit from exceptional performances, particularly by Khurram Mozaffar, totally convincing and winning as Imam Mustafa Khan. His nemesis, Charles Baker—who spouts lines like "It's the so-called moderate Muslims we have to worry about"—is another matter. A fairly common reaction, both online and at a presentation at Silk Road earlier this month, is "one-dimensional jerk."

And that's a dilemma for Khoury, who argues that Baker's positions are not unrealistic. "These are politics we see in op-ed pieces, from Fox News commentators, and in speeches at the Republican National Convention. They are relatively mainstream ideas." On the other hand, he adds, "I don't want this to be about demonizing people I don't agree with. It's a balancing act. My struggle."

Khoury's checked off four steps of the nine-step program he set for himself. Next up is the hard one: writing the first draft of the play, which he plans to do this summer. That'll be followed by a series of staged readings, probably next fall or winter. Meanwhile, the global online workshop remains open for comments.