Eloquent Mosque Alert argues for tolerance

Amy J. Carle (left) as Aisha Khalil, Frank Sawa (center) as Mostafa Khalil and Steve Silver (right) as Daniel Baker

Amy J. Carle (left) as Aisha Khalil, Frank Sawa (center) as Mostafa Khalil and Steve Silver (right) as Daniel Baker

By Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, 4/03/16

In 2010, a proposal to build a mosque and community center just a couple of blocks from ground zero in New York touched off a furor. Proponents said that the development, originally dubbed Cordoba House, would promote interfaith dialogue and manifest American freedom and tolerance. Opponents argued such a location would desecrate the memory of those who died in the terrorism-fueled collapse of the twin towers.

In his new play, "Mosque Alert," which opened Saturday at Silk Road Rising under the direction of Edward Torres, the Chicago playwright Jamil Khoury fictionalizes elements of that debate and moves the location to leafy, prosperous, well-educated Naperville.

He did not pick that west suburban town by accident.

As this newspaper reported, the plans of the Irshad Learning Center to build a workshop center just outside Naperville proved controversial and initially were denied by the DuPage County Board. In 2013, a federal judge reversed the decision, saying that she did not find overt evidence of discrimination but noting that a member of the board of appeals had asked if animal sacrifices would be held there. A separate but similar controversy erupted over building plans by the Islamic Center of Naperville.

"Mosque Alert," though, is a work of fiction; it imagines an entrenched Naperville Muslim group wanting to build a new mosque and community center in downtown Naperville, restoring the old Nichols Library. Khoury uses several such real locales in the suburb, but the protagonists of his drama — the members of three different, interconnected families, two of which are Muslim — come from his imagination.

The broadly drawn characters all have various positions related to the mosque — some are expedient, some are deeply held beliefs — and they argue out such matters as whether, at a crucial city council meeting, the supporters of the mosque should make themselves look as acceptably benign, mainstream and "un-Muslim" as possible, or whether no such accommodations should be necessary in a pluralistic society.

An actual digitized design for the proposed Naperville mosque is shown during the play — created by a real-life mosque architect named Christopher McCoy. It is a very beautiful blend of Islamic art and prairie-influenced architecture, and it deftly encapsulates the issues in the play.

Clearly, the broader issue is America's willingness (or lack thereof) to welcome Muslims into the heart of its identity, even in the context of acts of international terrorism propagated in the name of the Islamic State. This is very much an issue of the moment, thanks in no small part to one Donald Trump and his various inflammatory pronouncements on Muslims and immigration.

For that reason among many others, I found the shoddy state of the "Mosque Alert" production at Saturday's opening deeply disappointing.

What we all were watching that afternoon looked more to me like a rehearsal — there were blown entrances and so many fumbled, mangled and misremembered lines that it all was impossible to look past, for it spoiled the experience. And, frankly, the play.

The staging already was far too prosaic — big gaps occur between the scenes while unnecessary scenic elements (and bits of furniture) are moved around, as if we cannot use our imaginations. And every scene begins with actors entering from some distant corner speaking their lines, as if we only ever begin sentences when we are moving. The show sometimes looked amateurish. Silk Road, frankly, has been better than that.

The script itself has its moments, and it certainly articulates the issues with passion and, at times, eloquence. The best scene, actually, involves the most vocal bigot in the show, a character named Daniel Baker, played with relish by Steve Silver, who takes the microphone and argues against tolerance with enough hate-fueled intensity to end Act 1 with a shudder. But there also are some interesting scenes between a character named Tawfiq Qabbani (Rom Barkhordar), a Muslim businessman who learns that his pals at the Naperville Chamber of Commerce can't be trusted, and Ted Baker (Mark Ulrich), the head of that chamber and a Machiavellian deal-maker who would make any Chicago alderman blush.

Khoury's play is best when dealing with political and social ideas, when it lands more in the docudrama format that best suits issue-driven plays of this kind. It is less convincing, and has more unnecessary air, when dealing with the personal lives of the intermingled characters, not least because the play needs them all to represent a diversity of positions when people generally are messier than that. I think "Mosque Alert" did not really need to be so heavily fictionalized and personalized. There are plenty of facts in the public record; there were plenty of people who could have been interviewed. The closer to reality, the stronger the play.

Khoury is, ultimately, a romantic and a true believer in the potential for tolerance and understanding, which I've long admired. "Mosque Alert" ultimately is a plea for understanding and compassion that takes aim at the anti-Muslim forces, as you would expect, but also makes much of Islamic intolerance of homosexuality — in the play, a young gay man (warmly played by Riley McIlveen) wants to support the Naperville mosque but finds his support unwelcome.

In the end, the play and Khoury put their faith in the young and their capacity to render all mosque alerts obsolete.