Mosque Alert Provokes Discussion at Silk Road Rising

From left: Frank Sawa with Sahar Dika

From left: Frank Sawa with Sahar Dika

by Kerstin Broockmann, Chicago Stage Standard, 4/15/16

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Mosque Alert, despite its incendiary title (which refers to an Islamophobic website created by one of its characters), adds shades of gray to a discussion that often gets a black and white treatment. The arguments revolve around a proposed mosque in Naperville, a predominantly white, wealthy and Christian community in the Chicago suburbs. Weighing in on both sides in Jamil Khoury’s new play, in its premiere at Silk Road Rising, are voices that range from xenophobic to conservatively Muslim, with many perspectives in between. Fortunately, Khoury mostly avoids the soapbox and his characters are as complex as the issues that they discuss.

The play opens with clean-shaven, bow-tied Imam Mostafa Khalil presenting the elevations for the proposed Al Andalus Mosque, Library and Community Center in downtown Naperville, focusing on strengthening the ties between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Supporting the proposal is Mosque board member Tawfiq Qabbani, an “Episcopalian Muslim” and the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Ted Baker. Neither Tawfiq nor Ted mind cutting some corners to line their pockets, as is clear from their first encounter in the play. Tawfiq’s  wife, Aminah, is also friends with Ted’s wife Emily, who may be attempting to fill the void in her life with a bit too much alcohol, a friendship that is confounding to Imam Khalil’s more conservative wife Aisha. The three families, and the Qabbani and Baker children (the Khalil children are staying with relatives in Egypt), are at the center of the town controversy surrounding the Mosque, which becomes more divisive as different members of the community begin to show their true allegiances.

Khoury’s script does an excellent job of creating complex, human characters—even if they do not always recognize this in each other. Mostafa Khalil, played with gentle but unyielding certitude by Frank Sawa, has shed some of the visible signs of his faith and strikes a conciliatory tone, but his beliefs reflect a more rigid interpretation of Islam than those of his friend and supporter, Tawfiq Qabbani. Qabbani, a hearty Rom Barkhordar, at first appears to take a more relaxed approach to Islam, sharing drinks with Ted and giving his children the opportunity to choose their own paths—but the tension between his American identity and his traditional values is always present. His wife, too, finds her upper class life and the compromises it represents in conflict with her heritage. She appreciates fashion and creates her own outfits, designed around the hijab, but feels a bit uncomfortable when her friend Emily decides that she could market them and promptly comes up with a somewhat culturally tone-deaf marketing plan. Rula Gardenier strikes the perfect balance between the poised, forward-thinking suburbanite and the devout wife and mother who worries that perhaps her family has assimilated too much.

As Emily, Rengin Altay is the very portrait of white privilege and self-congratulatory liberalism, though her sincerity gives her desire to do the right thing and create her own identity as the nest empties poignancy. The younger generation, as represented by the 20-something Qabbani and Baker children, are clearly forging their own lives. Samar Qabbani, played with remnants of teenage petulance by Sahar Dika, is looking for an expression of her faith that will correspond to her liberal attitudes—an Islam that is inclusive for all, including the LGBT community, and that allows women to share the same spiritual and physical space with men. Her brother Farid has adopted a very American attitude towards success—a high-paying job with few demands; he also sympathizes with Americans who fear the brand of Islam which results in terrorism.

Though a bit of a stoner, Andrew L. Saenz’s Farid slowly reveals that his slacker exterior covers a lot of vulnerability and genuine thought. Jennifer Baker, Farid’s former girlfriend, is trying very hard to get away from her hometown—in fact, she is just back from Paris, and feeling stifled by the provincial attitudes of Naperville, especially those of Farid. Nina Ganet is appropriately aloof and stuck up, until she is must confront some attitudes that hit too close to home. Riley McIlveen plays the gay, young activist Carl, who passionately battles against both the Islamophobia and the homophobia of his hometown, with charm and intelligence.

Representing opposite ends of the spectrum, but sounding rhetorically the most similar, are Aisha Khalil, Mostafa Khalil’s wife, and Daniel Baker, Ted Baker’s flag-waving brother. Amy J. Carle as Aisha is uncompromising in her devotion to the conservative values she holds, and chides her husband for trying to change the face of their religion, and his own—he has shaved his beard to present himself to the community.

As Daniel, Steve Silver remarkably manages to retain his humanity despite the irrational fear and hatred that fuel his vision of the American dream. His venomous diatribe contains just enough facts to fan the flames of bigotry in anyone already looking for reasons to hate. It also justifies Aisha’s feelings of alienation and victimization, making her wonder if there isn’t a time for retaliation. There are extremists on both sides, and the attitudes that create them come from within and without their own communities. Though this is clearly articulated, it is the middle ground that proves the most thought-provoking. Carl, who has learned to respect different perspectives by being faced with rejection, finds that acceptance comes with limits—in scenes with his uncle and with Imam Khalil, Carl realizes just how difficult it is to create change.

Mosque Alert takes place in many locations, and sometimes strains to find a reason for the meetings between characters that take place (those young people do spend a lot of time drinking coffee). Director Edward Torres generally does an excellent job of placing each scene in context, though there were still some strained transitions on opening. Once scenes are established, Torres’ work with the actors becomes evident: with so many opinions being offered and justified, it would be easy to allow the characters to be subsumed by their rhetoric. This does not happen; Torres makes sure that all the characters clearly have a stake in what is taking place.

Dan Stratton’s set allows for relatively quick changes between scenes, but ultimately there are a few too many pieces in play and by midway through the first act the shifting of furniture, pillows and window treatments begins to seem unwieldy, despite the well-choreographed scene changes and the evocative music by sound designer and composer Thomas Dixon, whose work helps underscore the mounting tensions. Lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan effectively creates the many locations—especially the mosque—and makes sure the audience follows. Michael Stanfill’s video design brings Naperville to the stage, and Architect Christopher McCoy has designed an exterior for the Al Andalus Center that would enhance any suburban downtown. Costume designer Elsa Hiltner matches her designs to what each character wants to project. There are places in both the script and production that could be tightened, but there is more to compel attention.

Begun as a response to the controversy surrounding Cordoba House (aka the “Ground Zero Mosque”), Mosque Alert was five years in the making. Though set in Naperville, where several real proposals to build mosques met with resistance before being approved, this story is played out across America nearly every time a mosque is proposed, first because of September 11 and now due to fears of terror attacks by the so called Islamic State. It also resonates beyond the Islamic community to other marginalized communities today and in the past. It is a very American story about politics, patriotism, money, and assimilation. Jamil Khoury and the cast and crew of Mosque Alert allow a range of perspectives to be heard and offer no easy answers—the fact that so many of the characters are convinced they are right only reinforces this. Sometimes it seems Khoury is trying to nudge the audience to a certain viewpoint, but ultimately, he puts his faith in the ideas and reflections that his script will generate, and in the audience that must choose how they will react to any future mosque alerts.