Silk Road rolling along multiple pathways / by R. Sheth

Silk Road rolling along multiple pathways 
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

In September 2011, the Chicago theater company known as Silk Road Theatre Project changed its name to Silk Road Rising. The name switch was made in response to the organization producing online dramatic content in addition to its founding mission to produce theatrical works focusing on peoples from and of nations stretching from Japan to Italy that made up the ancient Silk Road.

The timing to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had a parallel, since out artistic and life partners Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury co-founded Silk Road Theatre Project in 2002 as a response to counter a wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that they saw growing in America.

"From the inception of the company, we started hearing from people not living in Chicago and often overseas, particularly Muslim women living in Europe, who somehow stumbled upon our website and would be very taken with the mission and the message of our work," said Khoury. "They would contact us and ask if there was some way they could participate, and of course, short of flying to Chicago and buying a ticket, there really wasn't."

Although Silk Road grew from a small itinerant Chicago troupe to a highly esteemed theater company ensconced in the basement of the historic Chicago Temple in the Loop, Gillani and Khoury realized that their often-acclaimed work and the organization's message were reaching limited audiences. This led to Silk Road's drive to produce its own original content online to capture audiences on a global scale.

"In trying to devise a way to have a reach beyond Chicago, obviously we kept thinking about the Internet because it's the most democratic, egalitarian and accessible medium out there," Khoury said. "Even locally there are people who are interested in the spirit of our work, but really don't care much for live theater but who also spend a lot of time online."

Rather than streaming full-length plays (which would have been a nightmare negotiating various rights issues and with union contracts), Silk Road started creating short-form content with narrative stories or in documentary styles. Khoury created a semi-autobiographical short film called both/and that examines what it means to juggle multiple identities of Arab, American and gay. Silk Road also produced a documentary called Not Quite White that explored immigration and Arab and Slavic notions of what constitutes whiteness in America.

However, perhaps the most ambitious online project is Khoury's Mosque Alert, which was created in response to not only the recent media frenzy surrounding the Muslim community center planned to be built near Ground Zero in New York, but also to the resistance of multiple communities across America to the building of new mosques.

Mosque Alert features characters that are both for and against the building of a new, more liberal-leaning mosque in Naperville. Viewers are actively sought to provide comments on the video shorts, and Khoury said he may or may not use their responses in shaping possible future plans for a stage adaptation of Mosque Alert.

Like some of the previous stage plays Silk Road has produced like Caravaggio and Precious Stones, there are gay characters in the mix in these online works. And although Silk Road is not actively seeking Muslim audiences for the online content, they are being accessed in Arab countries.

"Five of the 10 largest countries that are most accessing the works are from the Middle East, which is fascinating to me because in many parts of this world, you cannot be openly gay," said Gillani. "The fact that our work is being accessed in those countries tells me that we're serving a Muslim population that really wants to have access to these topics and these conversations."

With the company name change and the push to produce online content, both Gillani and Khoury stressed that Silk Road Rising has not turned its back on producing live theater (although it did not produce a play this past fall or winter).

Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret is currently on Silk Road's boards and it's something of a sequel to it previous revue Silk Road Cabaret: Broadway Sings the Silk Road. However, rather than draw its inspiration solely from the Great White Way, Khoury and out director Steve Scott have Re-Spiced featuring other music genres like country, rap, rock and folk to examine Asian and Middle Eastern images as conjured up in U.S. and British songs.

"[Re-Spiced is] going deeper with this idea of how representation of Silk Road peoples either in literature and music shaped perception in the West, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K. for better or for worse—particularly worse because the imagery was often at the service of a colonial or a war project," Khoury said.

Khoury is particularly curious about the potential audience reaction to Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," which promises U.S. revenge and vengeance after the attacks of Sept. 11.

"The lyrics to that song are hard for me to listen to," Khoury said. "But then you have an ensemble of eight American actors of color singing this song and it's powerful to watch because there's something so incredibly ironic and subversive going on and it changes the meaning of the song."

So whether they're producing live theater or online content, Khoury and Gillani hope audiences will go along with all of their expanded endeavors for Silk Road Rising and that they'll get over the organization's name change.

"Most people refer to us as Silk Road, and we were rarely called Silk Road Theatre Project except in official context in the past," Khoury said about the company's branding. "So Silk Road Theatre Project or Silk Road Rising, either way I think in the minds of the Chicago theater community we are Silk Road whatever word or words follow that."

Silk Road Rising's Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret runs now in previews through, Friday, April 6, with an official opening Saturday, April 7. Regular performances continue 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Sunday, May 6 at the Chicago Temple Building's Pierce Hall, 77 W. Washington St. (There will be no Chicago shows Friday and Saturday, April 27 and 28, since the show will be performed at Governors State University in University Park on the latter date.) Tickets are $20 for previews and $30 during the regular run; call 312-857-1234, ext. 201, or visit

Also, Khoury's video play of Mosque Alert, his semi-autobiographical video both/and, and the documentary Not Quite White can all be viewed online at