ROAD TRIP - Multiethnic Silk Road Gets Permanent Digs Downtown / by R. Sheth

March 30 - April 6, 2006

Last fall, when Silk Road Theatre Project produced Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith-about a Muslim family in which one son questions his sexuality-a leader in the local Muslim community told company founders Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury, "I'd rather be represented as a terrorist than the father of a gay son."

"We were constantly being told [by the Muslim leadership], There are no gay Muslims," Khoury says. To which Gillani responded, "You don't speak for me. I'm a gay Muslim."

The same leaders who objected to Acrobats raised no concerns about the company's new play, Back of the Throat (penned by Acrobats' Yussef El Guindi). No gays here-just an Arab-American interrogated and beaten by government officials.

Life partners Gillani, 35, and Khoury, 40, started their company as a response to the aftermath of September 11, 2001. An employee of Gillani's software firm quit because he couldn't work for "someone like you," Gillani says; meanwhile, Khoury chaperoned female friends harassed for wearing the hijab. In 2002, the couple formed Silk Road, named for the historic trade route stretching from China to Italy, to represent areas of the world that were "totally underserved" by Chicago theater, Gillani says.

"Two thirds of the world, essentially, their stories were not being told," Khoury says.

Helping Silk Road tell those stories is an unlikely partner: the First United Methodist Church of the Chicago Temple Building, the chapel-topped skyscraper at Clark and Washington. From their first meeting in 2003, Pastor Philip Blackwell says he saw an affinity between the company and the church: "Their vision of telling stories to create a better understanding is what we want to do, too," Blackwell says.

For Gillani and Khoury, the story got better. The church spent $1.4 million (and Silk Road contributed $100,000-an interest-free loan from Gillani's brother) to transform the church's basement into a flexible 99-seat theater for Silk Road. Inaugurated by Back of the Throat, the small theater is no small milestone: Other than its august neighbor, the Goodman, Silk Road is the only company with a permanent residence inside the Loop.

Clearly, a congregation (the city's oldest) that partners with a company that produced a "Jewish-Palestinian lesbian love story," as Khoury quips about his own play Precious Stones, isn't exactly conservative, and both Blackwell and Gillani make it clear that the church won't influence Silk Road's programming. Even so, a Methodist church and a nonreligious multicultural troupe isn't the most expected of unions.

But Gillani and Khoury know about unexpected unions. The son of an immigrant Syrian father and a Polish-Slovak mother, Khoury was raised in the Syrian Orthodox Christian church. Gillani was born in Pakistan of Muslim Indian parents, who moved to the U.S. when he was seven. When the two met ten years ago, "he didn't believe I was Jamil Khoury," the fair-skinned Khoury laughs. "He heard it as Jimmy O'Corey."

With their mix of religions and ethnicities, Gillani and Khoury embody the diversity they want to stage, a diversity they find sorely lacking in Chicago theater. "Chicago stages are among the most segregated spaces in the city," Khoury says. "There are so many opportunities to cast non-Caucasian actors, and those opportunities are just being squelched. There's a race problem in Chicago theater, and I don't think it's being addressed sincerely.

"This is a city that does not have a racial majority," Khoury adds, "and you would not know that going to the theater in this city." Getting nonwhite people not just on the stage but in the audience is crucial to Silk Road's mission. About a quarter of its audience is represented by Silk Road ethnicities, and about the same percentage are first-time theatergoers; almost half its audience is under 35.

For Gillani and Khoury, such artistic diversity translates directly into social change. According to Gillani, after a performance of Acrobats, a white audience member said to him, "I didn't realize Muslim families actually have husbands that love their wives."