Chicago Temple Embraces Drama of Arab, Asian Worlds / by R. Sheth

Chicago Temple Embraces Drama of Arab, Asian Worlds

April 18, 2003

ACTORS WANTED: Silk Road Theatre Project seeks five women and one man (non-equity) for local touring production of ""Precious Stones"," a drama by Jamil Khoury. Prefer Arab- and Jewish-looking actors. Middle East accents a plus.

Hmm. That's different. Middle Eastern accents. Arab- and Jewish-looking. The Silk Road?

I read a lot of casting call ads these days because my best friend--the lovely and immensely talented Joanna--is an actor and is perpetually, as many actors are, looking for work.

Although Joanna is neither Jewish nor Arab and has no discernible accent despite growing up in Kentucky, the Silk Road Theatre Project ad was intriguing. At least to me.

A little investigating uncovered one of Chicago's hidden treasures. Silk Road Theatre Project is the brainchild of Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury, a 30-something gay couple from the Loop, on a mission to fill a gap in the city's storied and vibrant theater community.

Gillani, who is a Pakistan-born Muslim whose parents are Indian, and Khoury, a local boy brought up in the Syrian Orthodox Church by a Syrian father and Polish-American mother, created Silk Road as a theater company by and for Asian and Arab performers.

Earlier this year, Silk Road mounted its first production, ""Precious Stones"," a play written by Khoury about Israeli-Palestinian relations in the United States.

Set in Chicago in 1989, the story follows two women--Andrea Greenbaum, a barely middle-class Jewish lesbian, and Leila Barakat, a married upper-class Palestinian--as they join forces to organize an Arab-Jewish dialogue group, and find themselves falling in love.

So much for starting out slow.

""Precious Stones"" kicked off the 2003 theater season at the Studio Theater of the Cultural Center of Chicago with a seven-week run. It was well-received, selling out more than half of its 26 performances, and Gillani and Khoury wondered what to do next.

Enter the Chicago Temple.

A Chicago institution at the corner of Washington and Clark since 1838, the Chicago Temple is a United Methodist church that caters to a diverse congregation and prides itself on keeping its sanctuary open seven days a week, a spiritual oasis in the middle of the Loop.

Gillani, the theater company's executive director in charge of marketing, had contacted the Rev. Philip Blackwell at Chicago Temple about buying group tickets to a ""Precious Stones"" performance. Weeks pass. Now it's spring (at least it's trying to be) and the church makes an offer Silk Road doesn't refuse: Be our theater in residence.

For the first time, the church in the middle of the theater district will have its own theater company. "There are a lot of ways of proclaiming truths and insights," Blackwell was telling me Thursday. "There has always been a tie between the church and the arts, and there is a dramatic sense to the theater that is not unattached to a dramatic sense of worship and the liturgy. In some ways I consider what we do on Sunday to be dramatic, theater of a particular sort."

"Looking at things in a provocative way is one of the calls of the church," he said. "What are the new voices that allow us to see essential truths in new ways?"

So, soon, Silk Road will begin rehearsing in the Chicago Temple's basement for a new production of ""Precious Stones"" in July at the church. Gillani and Khoury hope to follow that with a series of staged readings in September, followed by a play by a Chinese-American playwright and another by a Japanese-American playwright in early 2004.

"A lot of these works have been around for a while and have been produced around the country, but never in Chicago," Gillani explained Thursday. "These are celebrated playwrights, and their works are quite relevant to today's society."

"We felt there wasn't a voice giving a different perspective on our people," Gillani said, explaining that the people of the Silk Road--an ancient trade route from China to the West that wended its way through India, Afghanistan and Arabia, transporting Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism along with silk--are in the world's eye now more than ever.

"I think they're presented from outsiders, and we wanted to give the people in conflict the opportunity to voice their conflict in their own words, rather than us as outsiders projecting an image of what they are doing," he said. "Church, to me--temple, mosque--is introspection, no matter what religion. . . . What I see in common is looking inside and asking questions and debating. Theater itself lends itself so well to that introspection."

How Silk Road's story will end is up to the fates.

"If it works, great," Blackwell said. "If it doesn't, well, we tried."

Who knows? Planting its roots in a church basement worked for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which was founded at Highland Park's Immaculate Conception Church in 1974.