Asian Drama Troupe At Home In Loop Church / by R. Sheth

Asian Drama Troupe at Home in Loop Church

May 9, 2003

Amid the stained glass and Christian imagery of a second-floor chapel at a Methodist church, the Silk Road Theatre Project will stage a reading this summer of a play about gay Chinese-American men.

For the theater company and the church, it makes perfect sense.

Silk Road, which showcases writers of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds, has become the first theater-in-residence at the Chicago Temple, a First United Methodist Church.

Organizers say that while the temple and the theater company might seem like unlikely collaborators, they share a common belief that understanding among cultures can help create a more humane society.

"This is more than just a nice little sidelight. I think the survival of the world depends on these types of ventures. I don't think it's too over the top to say that," said Rev. Philip Blackwell, the church's senior pastor.

The temple, at 77 West Washington St., was already well known for welcoming a dizzying variety of social and cultural gatherings, from anti-war protesters to labor unions to Filipino musicians.

Now it includes Silk Road, founded last year by Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury as a response to misunderstanding about Muslims and Asians after the 2001 terrorist attacks. They also wanted to provide options to minorities in the arts.

Their works already have tackled delicate questions of race and identity.

Khoury's play "Precious Stones" chronicled the story of two women on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. The women also explore themes related to sexual orientations.

When the theater presented the play at the Chicago Cultural Center, organizers asked Blackwell to buy a block of tickets. The pastor did them one better by inviting them to set up shop at the temple.

Blackwell wanted to establish greater connections with Asian and Asian-American members of his congregation, "a whole range of cultures that I don't really understand and is not my domain," he said.

The pastor said he considered the Silk Road company a natural partner in that effort, noting that churches rely on storytelling and drama to spread their messages.

Gillani and Khoury, who are also life partners, said they wanted a location near the Loop theater district to increase the company's visibility.

Gillani said he thinks a house of worship is a natural and well-recognized force to draw people of all backgrounds together.

"What we're going to contribute to Chicago Temple is bringing together these communities that normally wouldn't come together just on a lark," Gillani said. "To us, a mosque, a temple or a church is a perfect place for that."

Silk Road will use the church space rent-free and keep all revenue from its productions. The company's first project since the arrangement will be a second staging of "Precious Stones" in the church basement in July. Organizers hope to seat audiences of up to 100.

They plan a dramatic reading of "A Language of Their Own," which features Chinese-American characters, in the chapel that normally houses Saturday morning church services, baptisms and other rituals.

Silk Road also is making plans for a production of "Tea," an award-winning play by a Japanese-American playwright.

Blackwell said he hopes to sponsor lectures, workshops and other events that coincide with the artistic works.

While Khoury said he realizes that his productions might seem out of place in a church, he notes that the artistic forces behind Silk Road are a diverse combination.

The theater company is not affiliated with cellist Yo-yo Ma's Silk Road Project, but it also focuses on the culture of the Silk Road, a trade route that stretched from China to Europe.

Khoury's ancestry combines Syrian, Polish and Slovak roots. He is a Christian who was raised in the Syrian Orthodox Church. Gillani, an Ismaili Muslim, was born in Pakistan to Indian parents. His great-grandparents were from Iran.

Gillani noted that Christians, Muslims and Jews share a common religious heritage with the same prophets and basic values. He said Silk Road's works are consistent with those spiritual values.

"This is a form of prayer," Gillani said. "It is a type of communion with God if you understand humanity better."