Review: Mosque Alert

From the left: Sahar Dika and Frank Sawa

From the left: Sahar Dika and Frank Sawa

By Sarah Bowden, Theatre by Numbers

One family is helping finance Naperville’s newest mosque. One family is defending the mosque’s religious teachings. And one family is revealing the community’s hidden bigotry via heinous websites and counter-protests.

These close-knit yet fracturing units are the focus of “Mosque Alert”, Jamil Khoury’s world premiere play about the intersections of zoning laws and Islamophobia, currently running at Silk Road Rising. Inspired by the controversy surrounding the “Ground Zero Mosque,” Khoury’s script has had a long history, starting its life as a ten-minute play commissioned by the American Theatre Company, and gaining new momentum as an online dialogue project. As a teaching artist for Silk Road in 2013, I had the pleasure of integrating the ten-minute “Mosque Alert” into educational lesson plans about acceptance and culture clash, so I viewed this production with extreme interest.

Imam Mostafa Khalil (Frank Sawa) introduces us to architectural plans for the new mosque early on in the show, via sharp projections designed by Michael Stanfill. Mostafa hopes the “community center” will bring Naperville together, while his wife Aisha (Amy J. Carle) worries that he is erasing Islam by adhering to name changes wrought by slick businessman Tawfiq Qabbani (Rom Barkhordar) and chamber of commerce head Ted Baker (Mark Ulrich). Tensions intensify once Ted’s brother Daniel (Steve Silver) publishes a website making racist claims about Muslims, and Naperville is torn into factions over approval of the proposed worship space.

Director Edward Torres contends with many overlapping circles in this play. Ted and Tawfiq are not only connected through work; their wives are also best friends. As if that didn’t provide enough story, their adult children struggle with friendships and intertwine romantically while conflict over the mosque grows. Torres smartly stages group scenes through sharp pictoral contrast. Even if you miss part of a character’s pro- or con-mosque argument, the visuals make it clear which character is on which side in the debate.  Scenes in the privacy of one’s own home provide a wider range of movement, often escalating into circles where spouses are ready to pounce on one another. Office scenes display a stiffer, more contained action, and outdoor scenes between the young adults are all sharp diagonals and two-against-one triangles.

At times, the actors appeared to be searching for lines, but those moments were brief, and overshadowed by a few powerful performances. Of particular note was the chemistry between Sawa and Carle, whose marriage felt hard-won and lived in. Carle excels in scenes where she must confront others’ assumptions about her religious beliefs, using stone-faced politeness to her advantage. Sawa’s optimism slowly unravels over the course of the play, and his warm-hearted openness keeps the audience from calling him naïve. While many will come away from this production remembering Silver’s fiery rhetoric, I will cherish the quiet moments between husband and wife.

Set designer Dan Stratton lays a beige carpet across the stage floor, allowing the space to transform into a living room, a city office, and several public meeting spaces with ease. The furniture of each of the three families is similarly bland, with throw pillow accents displaying their takes on suburban décor. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting gives intensity to the proceedings, and Thomas Dixon’s sound design, particularly the pre-show and intermission music, set the mood of a divided community.

“Mosque Alert” tackles a range of contemporary subjects, from fear of Islam, to the crooked politics of zoning laws, to national and individual responses to acts of terror. Khoury’s strongest argument scenes revolve around specifics, when polemics are organically woven into the texture of the families and their stories: Was it necessary for Mostafa to shave his beard and present a friendly face to his white neighbors? Should Tawfiq’s daughter wear a hijab to the town hall meeting about the mosque plans? If Daniel is a bigot, but supports his gay nephew, shouldn’t he win sympathy from his family, especially considering parts of the Muslim world reject homosexuality? When Khoury asks his characters to make choices about their public and private beliefs, he involves the audience in the outcome for this mosque. When he explores jargon about offstage characters wheeling and dealing for the mosque land, it becomes difficult to invest in the action. Storylines involving women other than Aisha feel like they need more time to develop, and the ending for the play arrives abruptly, with the overlapping family circles reaching a détente, rather than a conclusion.

Perhaps that is what Khoury intended. Perhaps he wanted to leave the action slightly unfinished, to motivate the audience to reflect on how to best defend religious freedom in its own communities. Whatever the reason, “Mosque Alert” still provides plenty to mull over on the train trip home.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Strong performances anchor this spirited debate with no easy answers.

RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”