Alert on stage

By Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times, 3/30/2016

It's been a long and winding developmental road for Jamil Khoury's Mosque Alert. This contemporary drama inspired by the heated controversy surrounding New York's so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" finally sees its official stage world premiere this spring in Chicago, courtesy of Silk Road Rising.

"The project itself started about four-and-a-half years ago in a digital online life," Khoury said. "It really had a twofold intent, which was really new play development, but also civic engagement."

Indeed, Mosque Alert was part of the company's global online presence and expanding outreach efforts. Co-founded originally as the Silk Road Theatre Project in 2002 by artistic director Khoury with his life partner, executive director Malik Gillani, the company's name was changed so it could encompass things like short films and documentaries that went beyond limited-run stage productions.

Khoury's approach to Mosque Alert was to set his fictionalized drama in the western Chicago suburb of Naperville in DuPage County. There, Khoury wanted to show how three different families react to plans of transforming a beloved city landmark into a mosque.

Yet, Mosque Alert was different in that Khoury sort of "crowd-sourced" his plot ideas and inspirations via short online video clips. The characters would express their thoughts via monologues and bicker over contentious points in two-person dialogue scenes. Silk Road Rising then invited people to comment on the videos with their thoughts—many of which that played an influence on how Khoury wrote his ultimate stage script.

"The responses have just been invaluable and really vital to taking this into this new form," Khoury said. "I had access—and have access because people continue to share thoughts—to perspectives, insights and reactions that I may not have considered through a different lens or pieces where people were relating to the particular conflicts or characters."

Having these videos ready and available also became a tool for Silk Road Rising's outreach discussions in various college, library or community centers over zoning, Islamophobia and other topics.

But in writing his stage script for Mosque Alert, Khoury had to ultimately turn his back on these videos. Though they live on via YouTube, the videos were taken down from Silk Road Rising's own website due to some patrons' confusion about it solely being an online video project ( also, none of the video actors ended up being cast in the stage production due largely to availability issues ).

Mosque Alert has already seen developmental two college productions in 2015 at both Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and Valparaiso University in Indiana. Both were extremely valuable to Khoury in making the transition from a fragmented video project to a professional stage production overseen by director Edward Torres. Khoury ended up expanding his character list from 6 to 11 people, while throwing out some video scenes and altering others for the final script.

One vital video dialogue that Khoury retained and shorted involved a gay activist and a Muslim imam. As a gay man, the scene had many personal resonances for Khoury.

"That conversation about a gay male character who is coming to a spiritual leader of this particular mosque community as an ally and looking at developing a strategy since LGBT people and Muslims publicly face so many of the same adversaries and obstacles," Khoury said. "And he receives a great deal of pushback from the imam, who is not really coming from an overtly hateful or hostile place, but it's a place of discomfort. And that kind of struggle we've seen in a lot of religious communities where on the one hand people don't want to be unkind or they don't want to discriminate in a certain way, but the reconciliation between faiths or a belief system with homosexuality becomes very uncomfortable and problematic."

In light of recent Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe and so much Islamophobia being openly spouted by Republican presidential candidates, Khoury feels that Mosque Alert has plenty of vital things to say.

"We're sort of in this dual battle taking place in the battle against Islamophobia on one hand, but also the battle against radical extremist Islamism and its distortions or deviations," Khoury said. "And they're constantly feeding each other and it becomes this vicious circle."

But Khoury is also encouraged to see Mosque Alert tapping into the cultural zeitgeist where other entertainment projects ranging from the Netflix drama series House of Cards to the Disney animated film Zootopia are all exploring the manipulation of fear and intimidation for political gain.

"For the LGBT community in particular, a number of our issues get addressed within the play, but also many of the parallels of how groups of people or communities or how identities are scapegoated," Khoury said. "We just saw this horrifying thing in North Carolina where the state legislature and the governor have gutted anti-discrimination protections in key municipalities in the state. This is this kind of perverse use of power and processes to punish entire communities."