Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith

Silk Road Theatre Project

at the Chicago Temple

Just when you were starting to stereotype repressive conservatives as members of the Christian right, along comes Ahmed Rehab from the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago to slap down Yussef El Guindi’s new play about a troubled Egyptian-American family, Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith. Rehab said in a Sun-Times story that he thinks it’s “unfair when a play with a subject matter that is distant from the classic struggles of the American-Muslim community, and is moreover not endorsed by it, uses the ‘Muslim bridge-building’ card to market itself.” What subject is it that Rehab imagines the evidently monolithic Muslim-American community would condemn? The struggle of Tawfiq, a 20-year-old college student, to understand his dwindling belief in Islam? The struggle of his brother, Hamza, to purge himself of all homosexual impulses? The struggle of their sister, Huwaida, to enter into an arranged marriage? Or the struggle of their father, Kamal, to accept and love his children and keep his family together at any cost?

Apparently Rehab would prefer a script that presents Muslims as the only religious practitioners in America free from secularizing forces, ambivalence about doctrinal teachings, and spiritual doubt. But that sort of reassuring fantasy is deadly in theater, which is after all a communal forum that arose some 2,000 years ago so that audiences could confront issues threatening their culture. There can be no theater without doubt. Great drama provokes, challenges, and transgresses; Hamlet, after all, offers compelling justifications for matricide and self-slaughter.

Not that Silk Road Theatre Project’s world premiere is great drama. Rehab has a point in criticizing the Muslim bridge-building card, played aggressively in the show’s marketing. Certainly American mainstream culture has become infused with subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Islamic sentiment in recent years. But one can only smile wearily when Guindi asserts in a press release that “any play that attempts to flesh out Muslims in a three dimensional way is probably doing a much needed job at the moment.” For one thing, people who think Muslims are scary or icky aren’t likely to plunk down $25 and sit in a roomful of them to have their minds changed.

Besides, theater needn’t become soggy amateur social work to prove its worth. If Guindi had actually given the Fawzi family three dimensions instead of the current two and a half, Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith might have made some cultural inroads in the manner of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or Michael John Garces’s Acts of Mercy. But like many contemporary playwrights, Guindi is better at illustrating problems than dramatizing them. In much of the first act, declaration takes the place of action. Tawfiq, for example, says he’s become an atheist because Islam, at least as practiced by his devout father, leaves him unable to breathe. But Guindi never shows Tawfiq oppressed by his father or his faith. Similarly Hamza’s dilemma is perfunctorily revealed in a single scene in which he tries to resist the advances of a man whose only role is to provoke Hamza into displaying his Big Issue. Neither brother’s conflict has much complicating effect on the play’s action. And when their father discovers their problems, he’s upset for a while, until he’s not.

Guindi invests more stage time in Huwaida and finds more nuance in her story as she tries to reconcile female independence with Islamic tradition. It turns out that she herself, not her parents, has been the one pushing for an arranged marriage with an Egyptian national she’s never met. Like wearing a headscarf despite quizzical or contemptuous stares, rigidly following tradition offers her freedom within the confines of a determined life course. In perhaps the most emotionally and ethically complex scene, Huwaida and her psychologist square off over the possible misogynistic impulses behind her wish to veil herself and become marriageable.

Only a handful of scenes achieve this level of intricacy, however, welcoming the messy business of life onstage. At these points the actors shine, revealing just how much potential the playwright has. In Stuart Carden’s staging, they bring enormous warmth to this schematic script, and by the second act their mere presence gives credence to the most formulaic moments. But if even an ensemble this talented can’t forge an authentic family from Guindi’s words, it’s time for a rewrite.

When: Through 12/30: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church, 77 W. Washington

Price: $20-$25

Info: 312-236-6881

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.