Mosque Alert calls many voices to the stage

Andrew L. Saenz (from left), Riley McIlveen and Sahar Dika in “Mosque Alert” at Silk Road Rising. (Photo: Airan Wright)

Andrew L. Saenz (from left), Riley McIlveen and Sahar Dika in “Mosque Alert” at Silk Road Rising. (Photo: Airan Wright)

By Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times, 4/4/16

‘SILK ROAD RISING’
Recommended

At any given moment in Jamil Khoury’s play “Mosque Alert,” now receiving its world premiere by Silk Road Rising, some in the audience are bound to (silently) applaud the sentiments being spoken while others (just as silently) no doubt are feeling enraged by them.

So there you have it: precisely the right recipe for a solid argument play. Democracy (and the First Amendment) in action. And remember, this only happens in a fraction of the countries in the world.

Though inspired by the post-2001 “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy in New York City, “sque Alert” is rooted far closer to home. It is loosely based on several actual cases involving the creation of Islamic community centers and mosques in Naperville and other parts of DuPage County. (Consult your program and you will find the details of four such cases, and learn that all these proposed projects ultimately won approval, with construction underway on three of them.)

Khoury’s play, directed by Edward Torres (with Dan Stratton’s set, expertly lit by Lindsey Lyddan, employing minimalist means to conjure multiple scenes), homes in on three fictional families living in Naperville. One is white and of an unspecified faith (probably Christian, but possibly Jewish, though the latter would be too loaded a choice), and two are Muslim.

Ted Baker (Mark Ulrich) is head of the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, a (white) political power broker not above accepting payola. Baker’s wife, Emily (Rengin Altay), is a living-room liberal who would benefit from having a job. The couple have two grown, college-educated children: Jennifer (Nina Ganet), just back from her junior year in Paris and very much “over” Naperville, and her gay activist brother, Carl (Riley McIlveen), who is as liberal as his mother, but gets a good lesson in Islamic attitudes towards homosexuality.

Ted is friends with Tawfiq Qabbani (Tom Barkhordar), a successful Syrian-born real estate developer with whom he plays golf, and from who he accepts the occasional envelope filled with cash that can lubricate business deals, including the project for which he is serving as president of the board. That project is the proposed Al Andalus Library and Community Center, a mosque to be located in the heart of downtown Naperville. Promoted as an interfaith endeavor (whose name bears echoes of the medieval period when southern Spain flourished with a mix of Christians, Muslims and Jews), the mosque is far from universally welcome.

Tawfiq’s wife, Amina (Rula Gardenier), a chic woman who wears a hijab and is thinking of becoming a fashion designer, is friends with Emily. And the Qabbanis’ American-bred, wholly assimilated son, Farid (the very engaging Andrew L. Saenz), dated Jennifer before she left for Paris (where she was seemingly unfazed by the Charlie Hebdo massacre). Farid’s sister, Samar (Sahar Dika), is a feminist who maintains her own form of ties to Islam. (The “millennial” kids in both families tend to have more accommodating views about many things.)

And then there are the Khalils. Mostafa Khalil (Frank Sawa) has abandoned his professional life to become an imam, and plans to lead Al Andalus. His Egyptian-bred wife, Aisha (Amy J. Carle), has sent their kids to spend the summer in Egypt with their grandparents. Aisha has quite a large chip on her shoulder about America and her place in it.

Last — but by no means least — there is Ted’s brother, Daniel Baker (Steve Silver). Vehemently opposed to the Al Andalus project, he sets up a website, MosqueAlert.com, and exercises his full right to free speech. He calls the plan for the mosque a provocation, enumerates the dangers of radical Islam and decries the folly of liberal apologists, later repeating his sentiments at a town hall meeting where part of the audience cheers and part brands him a racist.

Although Khoury gives everyone in the play his or her say, and all the attendant ambivalence and certainty, he brings his most searing writing to Daniel’s uncensored tirade. And Silver, in the show’s finest performance, delivers it with formidable passion and fearlessness, as all the blood and smoke of recent Islamist terrorist attacks — in California, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and beyond — hang in the ether.

The many different tensions and resentments that surface as a result of the Al Andalus controversy capture the temper of our time. The play’s abrupt ending may be an effort to calm the waters, but that might well be wishful thinking.