A Contrarian View: Race, Representation, and Islamophobia in Ayad Akhtar’s "Disgraced" by R. Sheth

The 2015-16 theatre season represents a first in American theatre history. A play written by a Muslim American playwright of Pakistani heritage will receive more productions nationwide than any other play. In fact, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is the first play ever to feature a Muslim protagonist (apostate or otherwise) to have garnered this level of attention and acclaim. From Chicago’s American Theatre Company, to Lincoln Center, to London’s West End, to Broadway, to a Tony nomination, to scheduled productions at over 50 U.S. theatre companies, to an HBO film deal, to foreign language translations, Disgraced has become nothing short of an international phenomenon. And yet, the play’s resounding success begs an obvious question: Why is a play that affirms so many popular fears about Muslims the toast of the American theatre season? 

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: An Assault, A Critique, and A Truce
by R. Sheth

The staff at Silk Road Rising crafted a set of questions for me about Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced. I found them immensely cathartic to answer. Many of the ideas and opinions expressed below will be integrated and expanded upon in a soon-to-released larger piece that I’ve been developing with South Asian American scholars Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Neilesh Bose.

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Silk Road Goes on the Road With Big Grant by R. Sheth

by Jonathan Abarbanel, Footlights 
September 2015

Silk Road Rising has received $150,000 Nation Grant (the largest grant in its history) from ArtPlace (sic) America, a consortium of foundations, financial institutions, and federal agencies. The grants are made to support the arts in a specific place within a community with the intent of having a broader impact on that community. For example, it might be a mosque in Naperville—and that's precisely it in this instance as Silk Road develops new work Mosque Alert, by Artistic Director Jamil Khoury. He explains Mosque Alert is "an artistic and civil engagement project that dramatizes the difficulties Muslims face across the country, due to Islamophobia and cultural biases, when attempting to build houses of worship." Khoury says it was inspired by the 2011 "Ground Zero" controversy in New York City. Over the next 18 months, Silk Road Rising will use the Old Nichols Library in downtown Naperville as its fictional mosque. They will work with community partners to generate community-wide conversations that examine fears associated with the building of a mosque—fictional or otherwise—in a Western community. Khoury will use this input to further shape the play. Mosque Alert will receive its world premiere production next March at Silk Road Rising's permanent theatre in The Loop.

PLEASE NOTE: This article was originally printed in Footlights, September 2015.

Read the article in PDF format here.

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Fears of the Artist by R. Sheth

Some people thought me heroic, even thanked me for being so brave. I had said what others thought but were afraid to speak. Afraid of retribution, afraid of never working again. And it was that expression of fear that I heard over and over again, usually couched within anecdotes, one more disturbing than the next. Had I been whisked away to another sector, I wondered? Was I singlehandedly battling Monsanto? For what I did was neither courageous nor controversial. I’m an artistic director. I was doing my job. If theatre makers are in the business of representation, but are not allowed to challenge representation, something is terribly wrong. If storytellers can’t call out a storyteller, then how in God’s name will we ever change the world? Yet in speaking out I came to realize that the very structure of our sector is built upon the fears of the artist.

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Traveling the Silk Road to the stage by R. Sheth

In the 2005 theater production of 10 Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, a strange thing happened to one audience member. The woman loved the play. The play, which told the story of an Egyptian family struggling to find its niche in American society, featured a genuinely loving relationship between a Muslim man and his wife.

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Silk Road rolling along multiple pathways by R. Sheth

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.

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Founded by Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani as a response to 9/11, the Silk Road Theatre Project quickly established itself as one of Chicago’s most exciting new theatre companies. by R. Sheth

Founded by Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani as a response to 9/11, the Silk Road Theatre Project quickly established itself as one of Chicago’s most exciting new theatre companies. While the initial idea focused on intercultural exchanges with the Middle East, the company soon embraced the entire region along the historical Silk Road. The pre-modern trade route that stretched from Japan to Italy served both as a geographic guide for the new theatre company and as a metaphor for intercultural dialogue. Having won multiple awards, including the American Theatre Wing’s National Theatre Company Grant (2010), the Broadway in Chicago Emerging Theater Award (2008), and the City of Chicago’s Human Relations Award (2008), the Silk Road Theatre Project reinvented itself under the name Silk Road Rising in 2011. In addition to presenting perspectives of Silk Road cultures in live theatre performances, the new organization’s mission includes the production of “video dramas” that are exclusively available online. CAR Theater Researcher John Carnwath recently spoke with Jamil Khoury, Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, about the reasons for the change, their new mission, and the challenges of rebranding a successful theatre company.

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Today, Chicago Theatre Off Book is reviewing exciting offerings from local theatre companies. by R. Sheth

Today, Chicago Theatre Off Book is reviewing exciting offerings from local theatre companies. In addition, we chat with Kevin Theis, Seanachai Theatre ensemble member and director for “Moon for the Misbegotten,” Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director at Silk Road Rising and creator of “Re-Spiced,” and Steve Scott, Associate Producer for Goodman Theatre and director of “Re-Spiced.” And of course, we have two new Got A Minute?segments from local playwrights.

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Jamil Khoury and his partner Malik Gillani founded Silk Road Theatre Project in the wake of 9/11 by R. Sheth

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Dennis Polkow

Jamil Khoury and his partner Malik Gillani founded Silk Road Theatre Project in the wake of 9/11 to focus on Middle Eastern and Asian (“Silk Road”) themes as the hostility toward many of the peoples in and from those regions reached a fever pitch here in the States. They’ve been successful at building the company both fiscally—they were a recipient of the Broadway In Chicago award—and critically—their production of David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” was one of last year’s highlights, and Khoury’s playwriting, from “Precious Stones” to his group-written creation “DNA Trail,” have been a foundational element from day one. However, Khoury and Gillani have come to realize that their audience is much larger than Chicago—it is truly global—and as such, have recently rechristened themselves Silk Road Rising and launched a series of online video plays, written by Khoury and entitled “Mosque Alert.” That they’re seeking a global audience does not mean they’ve forsaken live theater, though. In fact, Khoury’s created and curated “Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret” that opens in April under the direction of Steve Scott.

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It’s a little crazy to change a brand name you’ve only recently managed to establish. by R. Sheth

It’s a little crazy to change a brand name you’ve only recently managed to establish. So when Jamil Khoury told me (during his interview for the Reader’s People Issue), that Silk Road Theatre Project, founded in 2002 by himself and his partner, Malik Gillani, underwent a name change three months ago, I was surprised.

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