October 13, 2005
Silk Road Theatre Project’s world premiere production of Yussef El Guindi’s Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith (October 13 – December 30, 2005), directed by Stuart Carden, promises to break new ground for Chicago theatre: dramatic representation of Arab-American and Muslim- American lives that is authentic, three dimensional, and grounded in human experience. “Yussef El Guindi writes from within the Arab and Muslim communities. His work exudes a certain subjectivity, a familiarity, that enlightens and informs, while never failing to entertain,” says Artistic Director Jamil Khoury.
“Chicagoland’s combined Muslim and Arab populations are estimated to be 400,000 strong,” says Executive Director Malik Gillani. “And yet our communities are either neglected by local theatres, or are reduced to these offensive caricatures. In Ten Acrobats we finally have a play that represents our experiences with realism and affection.” “I would say that for non-Muslims, Ten Acrobats is a rare window inside the worlds of our Muslim neighbors, colleagues, and friends,” adds Khoury. “The play responds beautifully to the post – 9/11 hunger within American society for greater understanding, understanding about Muslims, about Arabs, and about Islam.”
Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith is the story of an Egyptian immigrant family struggling to find their place within American society. “As the characters navigate inter-generational conflict, their Islamic faith, and the values of two cultures, the audience catches an intimate glimpse into a community widely stereotyped as ‘dangerous’ and ‘scary,’ says Khoury, “Yet what we find is a story not about crazed terrorists or religious extremists, but about an American family, a group of individuals, each trying to etch out their versions of the American dream.” “Ten Acrobats is unique in that it’s a Muslim-American family drama steeped in both Muslim identity and the American experience,” explains Gillani. “It shows that being Muslim and American is not some oxymoron, but rather a perfect fit. The play evokes these universal themes, such as faith, culture, belonging, and desire. And it ends up adding a whole new chapter to the American immigrant narrative.”
“Upon first reading Ten Acrobats, I knew instinctively that Silk Road had to produce it,” says Khoury. “It’s a truly great piece of theatre.” But it was the humanizing aspect of the story that struck Khoury and Gillani as most urgent and important. “Ten Acrobats is like an antidote to all the fear, suspicion, and distrust that’s out there. It states unequivocally that ‘we’re human being too,’” says Gillani.
“We’re constantly hearing demands that ‘Muslims need to reform their faith,’ ‘Islam needs a reformation,’ and ‘Arabs need to liberalize their culture,’” says Khoury. “Normally these demands are couched in this assumption that Muslims and Arabs are averse to self-criticism, incapable of selfintrospection. Well this play demystifies all that. It’s a play written by an Arab-Egyptian-Muslim- American playwright that is highly introspective and critical, and yet isn't at all about bashing Muslims and Arabs.” “To the contrary, it’s about celebrating our communities,” adds Gillani. “And for those of us inside the Arab and Muslim communities, we know these characters! We know them as family members, friends, and as ourselves.”
True to Silk Road Theatre Project’s mission of showcasing playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds whose works address themes relevant to the people of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities, Ten Acrobats doesn’t shy away from controversial subject matter either. “The characters are real people facing real challenges. They’re not angels. They’re not demons. What they are is enormously likable,” says Khoury. “In one household you have a son who declares himself an atheist, a daughter rebelling against her parent’s wishes, a son discovered to be gay, and an incredibly loving yet confused mother and father trying to make sense of it all! Combine all that - plus a few surprises - with this really beautiful portrayal of a tight-knit Arab family and you have Ten Acrobats.” Khoury emphasizes that the issues tackled in the play are issues that confront all faith communities and cultures, and are particularly trying for those communities deemed more socially conservative.
“Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith takes its leaps of faith seriously,” quips Khoury. “It’s not only informative about Islam, but it’s extremely respectful of Islam. And it’s high time for that! The play dares to ask questions, questions about religious observance, about belief, about living in a secular society, about being Muslim in an overwhelmingly Christian country. And it doesn’t proffer solutions or answers.” “I love that the play examines the hijab (Muslim women’s headdress) and the debates surrounding the hijab,” Gillani adds. “It reflects upon fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, whether or not the Koran should be read literally, whether or not God actually exists. I think no matter where you fall on the Muslim spectrum, you’re going to have your beliefs affirmed and challenged by this play.”
“Muslims who are familiar with the play have praised it as ‘a breath of fresh air,’ ‘a welcome relief,’ ‘something we can relate to,’ while others have criticized it for ‘airing dirty laundry’ and ‘making Muslims look bad.’ In our communities, there’s still a lot of denial around issues of gender and sexuality,” insists Gillani. “As a community that feels itself under siege, representation raises all sorts of sensitive issues for people. I hate to say it, but I think some of us would rather be represented as terrorists as opposed to being atheist, feminist, or gay. ” “An earlier incarnation of the Ten Acrobats script received a staged reading in a Los Angeles mosque,” Khoury adds. “In the post-reading discussion that ensued, the play was dismissed by some mosque members as being ‘unrepresentative.’ Their argument essentially went ‘we don’t have gay sons, we don’t have rebellious daughters, and we don’t have atheists in our families,’ as others in the mosque quietly shrugged and rolled their eyes as if to say ‘Uh, excuse me?’”
In maintaining that Ten Acrobats breaks entirely new ground in the representation of Muslims and Arabs, Silk Road Theatre Project hopes to change some hearts and minds. “In this post-911, post- Bali, post-Madrid, post-London, post, post, post, world of ours, with American soldiers occupying two Muslim countries and eyeing a couple more, we have got to start understanding each other,” Gillani argues. “And we have got to stop letting criminals and nut cases define the discourse!” To which Khoury adds, "We presented a staged reading of Ten Acrobats this past May, and for me it extremely powerful sitting in a mixed audience of Muslims and non-Muslims, everyone from recent immigrants to fifth generation Americans, connecting with, relating to, and seeing themselves in the lives of this Muslim immigrant family. Not as some exotic 'other' mind you, but as 'people like us.' We’ve had people come up to us and say, ‘Oh, this is an Italian story.’ ‘An Indian story.’ ‘A Jewish story.’ "A Roman Catholic story." We’ve even heard, ‘This is a Southern Baptist story.’ In the end, Ten Acrobats is everyone’s story.”