There's a powerful bit of advice for theater actors or artists who complain about inherent biases or the lack of roles available to them in the industry. It's basically to stop complaining and go create or produce your own material.
One Chicago theatrical institution that has more than lived up to that advice is Silk Road Rising ( formerly Silk Road Theatre Project ). Co-founded in 2002 by life partners Malik Gillani and Jamil KIhoury as an artistic response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Silk Road Rising became a way to respond to the country's growing tide of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. Silk Road Rising's focus was soon expanded to shine a light on the peoples, history and civilizations found along the historic Silk Road stretching from Japan to Italy with the idea that many cultures share customs and are inherently linked.
But for its 2015-16 season, Silk Road Rising is in a sense going back to its roots by producing many personal and solo artist-generated projects. Already come and gone was a one-weekend August run of Puja Mohindra's A Great Dive which explored notions of Eastern and Western love with a nod to classical Indian dance.
Next on the roster is Marissa Lichwick's Yellow Dress running from Thursday, Oct. 1, to Sunday, Oct. 4. Yellow Dress explores Lichwick's own experiences as a Korean American adoptee who tries to discover her cultural and ancestral roots back in Asia.
"In the calendar year of 2015, we had made a decision to commit to the development of solo pieces. For years, artists have been asking us to look more seriously at solo work," said Silk Road Rising artistic director Jamil Khoury. "It's not that we didn't like solo work or take solo work seriously, we were so focused on 'traditional' plays."
So this explains why some theater traditionalists might have glanced at Silk Road Rising's seasonal roster and wondered why the largely short-run scheduling deviated so far from what the company had previously done with longer theatrical runs.
"We finally came to the point where we decided to make a big, bold artistic commitment to working with solo artistsparticularly female artistswho are in various stages of their work either developing it or revisiting pieces," Khoury said. "We were interested in introducing to audiences a genre that I think draws from several traditions including the oral narratives and epic poetry that we associate from the Silk Road itself."
Yet there is also room for other traditions in the mix, like sketch comedy in Jameeleh Sheelo's My American Cousin ( Nov. 19-22 ) that archly explores life aspects of an Arab-American Muslim woman. And music is bound to play a major part in Ronnie Maley's historically influenced piece called Ziryab, The Songbird of Andalusia ( Feb. 18-22 ).
But to close out Silk Road Rising's season is a full-length play by Jamil Khoury that has been the company's long-aborning signature project known as Mosque Alert. Its creation was inspired by the furor over the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque in New York, though Khoury instead switched the setting to be more local by following three fictional families' in Naperville, Illinois, and their responses to a proposed Islamic Center on the site of a beloved landmark.
Since 2011, Mosque Alert has been developed in workshops and online video snippets to generate debate. In many ways, Mosque Alert was a catalyst for Silk Road Rising to create work online like documentaries and video plays so the company could reach people globally beyond the live audiences watching the plays they produced.
"We really need to use all of this technology that's now available to us. On some level it's unprecedented in terms of human history that we can communicate the way we can," said Khoury, who noted that people in countries as far away as Iran and Pakistan have reached out to Silk Road Rising wanting to see the company's material but were unable to travel to Chicago. "And how do we create artistic content that is also very true to our mission and poses questions and provokes in a way that becomes a little difficult with the live theater and terms of its reach. We're able to have conversations that are prohibitively dangerous or censored in any number of countries."
For example, Khoury and Gillani haven't shied away from feminist or LGBTQ issues or characters in some Silk Road Rising productions, and they have had to respond to comments or criticisms from members of different ethnic and religious minorities. In fact, Mosque Alert prominently features a scene where a gay advocate on the side of the Islamic Center gets pushback from an Iman who would prefer that he stay closeted.
"I wanted to explore those sort of gray areas of coalition work when people aren't always comfortable or excited about who their allies may be," Khoury said. "We personally and organizationally have dealt with a great deal of homophobia from segments of the Silk Road community. That's not a broad generalization because we have lots of Muslim supporters on any number of levels, but this has been a very difficult 'wedge' issue."
Silk Road Rising presents Yellow Dress by Marissa Lichwich at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 3 and 4. Tickets are $15 and $12 for students. Call 312-857-1234 ext. 201, or visit www.silkroadrising.org for more information on the rest of the season.