Silk Road Theatre Project Breaks In New 99-Seat Home / by R. Sheth

April 7, 2006

It is not often that a theater company with just three productions to its credit (Precious Stones, Tea, and Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith), manages to set up shop in a newly rehabbed space in a historic building in the heart of the Loop.

But that is precisely what the Silk Road Theatre Project and its founders -- Malik Gillani, 35, and Jamil Khoury, 40 -- are now doing. This weekend, they not only will bring up the lights on their fourth production, Back of the Throat. They also will inaugurate their new home, a 99-seat theater on the "concourse" level of the First United Methodist Church of the Chicago Temple Building -- the 1924 architectural gem by Holabird & Root that stands at Washington and Clark, and is instantly recognizable by its cathedral-like spire.

And consider this neat trick: The church has footed the bill of $1.4 million for the major construction, with Silk Road itself contributing just $100,000 (coming in the form of an interest-free loan from Gillani's brother) to pay for such things as lighting and sound equipment, risers for the theater's flexible seating and box office software.

The Silk Road Theatre Project was established as a direct response to the Sept. 11 attacks and what Gillani and Khoury sensed to be a period of chaos for Americans like them. Gillani, who describes himself as "a gay Muslim," arrived in the United States at age 7 -- the Pakistan-born child of Indian parents. Khoury, his life partner, is an Orthodox Christian with Syrian and Polish-Slovak roots, and has a master's degree in divinity sciences.

"We really believed in the American dream, and the power of the immigrant, and the idea that individuals could make a difference," said Gillani, a former software specialist who tends to be the loquacious spokesman for the company. "At first we did a lot of public speaking and videotapes, but we realized we weren't changing too many hearts and minds that way. Eventually we decided that the best way to get information out was through theater. The resistance threshold is just lower when people go to be entertained. And we thought we could bring greater understanding of the Eastern world by means of storytelling, which is really what all the great books behind the world's religions do."

To date, the company has presented plays about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about Japanese war brides and about an Egyptian patriarch's response to a homosexual son. Back of the Throat, by the Seattle-based playwright Yussef El Guindi (who also penned the latter play), is a black comedy about an Arab-American man investigated for presumed terrorist ties. Coming up in the fall at Silk Road will be Caravaggio, Richard Vetero's drama about the bad-boy Italian Renaissance painter.

A literary manager will soon be brought on board to develop more connections to playwrights, but productions of works with Chinese, Korean and Indian roots already are in the planning stages.

Silk Road's greatest challenge to date? Finding actors who fit the roles, as well as nurturing directors who can help them through the process during unusually long rehearsal periods.

"We are committed to casting ethnically appropriate actors," said Gillani. "It's not always easy; this is the first time that many of these actors are playing leading roles. But in creating opportunities we are developing talent. And it has now gotten to the point where casting directors and talent agents are coming to our shows in search of actors."

Silk Road Geography

Just what was the ancient Silk Road? Think of it as the Route 66 of the ancient world -- the vast network of trade routes that began in China, stretched across Central and South Asia, spread into the Middle East and then went on to Mediterranean Europe, culminating in Italy. Thriving from the 2nd century B.C. to the 16th century as a major artery for the silk trade and the exchange of other goods, the Silk Road also served as an intellectual and cultural marketplace.

Trace the many paths of the ancient Silk Road on a modern map and you will discover that it traverses more than two dozen entities including: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, North Korea, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mongolia, Pakistan, Palestinian territories, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.