Silk Road Theatre Project: Remaining True to Mission. Theatre Company receives $250,000 gift mural / by R. Sheth

Silk Road Theatre Project: Remaining True to Mission
Theatre Company receives $250,000 gift mural

February 28 – March 6, 2007
BY SUSAN FONG

The multi-ethnic Silk Road Theater Project has attracted support on many fronts, and the latest is a mural by Chicago ’s world-renowned Zhou Brothers. The Zhou Brothers unveiled their $250,000 gift mural February 8 to the theater company housed in the basement of the Chicago Temple/First United Methodist Church downtown. “We know the Zhou Brothers resonated with our mission and we are very grateful,” said the SRTP founders, Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani . “We were totally surprised.” The six-by-20-foot painting, entitled The Silk Road, synthesizes texture, color, Eastern and Western contemporary aesthetics, and hangs along an interior wall inside the theater hall.

DaHuang Zhou, the younger of the two Zhou Brothers, explained that the work conveys their impressions from the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Several years ago, Shan and DaHuang Zhou journeyed into a leg of the former trade route to collect their own experiences of the Silk Road . The mural’s center panel in tan, gold and black embodies their process; completing the map are tan and sienna panels on either side, with red lines to show the route. “As artists,” explained DaHuang Zhou, “we are able to sense what cannot be expressed through words.”

The Silk Road refers to the caravan routes from Asia through the Middle East into the Mediterranean . The routes brought wares, people and culture together from 200 B.C.E. to the 1600s.

Celebrated internationally and in their homeland of China , the Zhou Brothers are known for their collaboration in various artistic media. Since 1986, they have been based in Chicago . At present, the Brothers are preparing for a retrospective celebration of their work at the National Museum in Beijing .

The idea for a mural arose when founders Khoury and Gillani were contemplating what to bring into the new space. Both agreed they wanted a work that would convey a sense of their mission: to present theater related to the Silk Road nations. In 2005, the theater company approached Chase Bank and received $10,000 as seed money to grow further funding for the project. An acquaintance then introduced founders Khoury and Gillani to the Zhou Brothers as possible collaborators. “In our initial meeting, we discovered how much we had much in common,” said Artistic Director Khoury.

Khoury stated directly that they had $10,000 to begin. The Brothers responded that they would normally command $250,000. But after a moment’s pause and with little or no discussion, the Zhou Brothers offered the mural as a gift. The company selected the title and the Brothers its content. The Zhou Brothers’ donation surprised not only the founders, but also the artists themselves. DaHuang told StreetWise “we have never done this before, but it felt right.”

The Silk Road Theater Project was conceived shortly after 9/11. In response to the 2001 crisis, Khoury and Gillani wanted to provide a more realistic, multi-dimensional portrait of the Muslim community. Because Khoury was a writer, they chose theater. The partners later extended and finalized their mission to represent the works of the Silk Road communities. The company has brought Chicago playwrights of Mediterranean , Middle Eastern and Asian heritage from across the nation. “Through presenting quality works the company opens the door to examine emotionally-charged issues from an accessible stance,” explained PR Coordinator Johanna McKee .

Actress Cheryl Hamada said that it is exciting to have a chance at larger roles and new works, instead of being relegated to minor parts. Hamada will appear in the company’s next production, Golden Child, by New York writer David Henry Hwang. The show opens March 1.

The message of multicultural exchange also helped open the door to the company’s present home at the Chicago Temple/First United Methodist Church. The founders had initially approached the Rev. Phillip L. Blackwell, pastor, about group sales for their first full-length production at the Chicago Cultural Center . Moved by their mission, Blackwell offered the young company a working space. Yet eventually the church renovated its basement and in the spring of 2003 invited SRTP to become its first theater-in-residence. Now with offices and 99-seat theater space, Silk Road has been able to comfortably expand its program of staged readings and to increase its annual productions.

Board President Frank L. Buttitta, director of marketing for Deloitte Services, came to SRTP after seeing Tea by Velina Hasu Houston. “The show was so well done,” he said, “I knew I wanted to become more involved. Buttitta admitted that in spite of his extensive travels he had had no relationship with people of Muslim origins. Joining the board two years ago offered him the opportunity.

The company also recently started a cultural training program, called “Myths to Drama,” for elementary schools. Director Malik Gillani . is the creator of this new training.

“We are on our second school,” said David Chrzanowsk, education coordinator and teacher. ”The kids love the interactive method of learning cultural history. The response has been great.”

By remaining true to its mission, like its namesake, the Silk Road Theater Project is reaching a multicultural community far beyond its own.