Near the first-act finale of Jamil Khoury’s sprawling, ambitious Mosque Alert, conservative assimilationist imam Mostafa Khalil prepares for a Naperville town meeting. The only item on the agenda is his proposed Al Andalus Library and Community Center, to be built smack downtown. While the bribe-friendly director of the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, Ted Baker, publicly backs the project—not coincidentally, Khalil’s developer, Tawfiq Qabbani, knows how to grease a palm—his rich attorney brother, Daniel, gets wind of the project and hastily assembles a hyperbole-laden website, mosquealert.com, which spews the sort of Islamophobic misinformation routinely parroted by right-wing bloggers, Republican politicians, and even certain local mainstream media outlets.
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy for Khalil. His ardently anti-assimilationist wife, Aisha, takes every opportunity to remind him of how eagerly he’s erased overt signs of his faith from the project, striking the word “Islamic” from the center’s name and even shaving his beard. His progressive daughter, Samar, insists the center, which will include a mosque, allow men and women to pray together and be “LGBT friendly.” Meanwhile his stoner son, Farid, thinks all Muslims must “own up” to the actions of terrorists. In fact he’s not sure he wants to be a Muslim at all.
So to say Khoury tosses a lot of balls in the air is an understatement. (I haven’t even mentioned the uncertain love affair between Farid and Ted Baker’s daughter, Jennifer; the half-formed activism of Jennifer’s gay brother, Carl; or the vigorous scheme that Baker’s wife, Emily, cooks up to market the fashionable hijabs designed by Qabbani’s wife, Amina. Got that?) Khoury developed the play through five years of staged readings, video blogs, college productions, video essays, and “civic engagement programs,” all designed to elicit feedback from widespread audiences, and it seems he tried to get everyone’s feedback into the play. So when Kahlil preps for the town hall meeting, and Amina, playing a “concerned citizen,” lobs him one anticipated criticism for the project—”The real problem is overdevelopment and overcrowding”—she may as well be describing the play.
Which isn’t to say Mosque Alert isn’t effective, even important. But it’s not consistently so, either. The story that matters—the manufacturing of strategies, allegiances, lies, and betrayals that may get an Islamic center built or nixed—often gets put on hold while ancillary personal issues play themselves out. It makes for a long two-plus hours, made longer on opening night by the underrehearsed tentativeness of director Edward Torres’s Silk Road Rising production.
But when Khoury foregrounds the politics of his play, the results are often stunning. In these scenes Khoury shows a Kushneresque knack for complicating already complicated realities, muddying motivations, and making it agonizingly clear that no one can be right—or even fully comprehensible—in a hopelessly fraught situation. And often he cracks open political dilemmas far removed from the mainstream, as when Carl attempts to support the imam by linking the fight against Islamophobia to the gay liberation movement. It’s one of those deliciously frustrating scenes in which an impossible gulf between lived experiences and historical legacies leaves two natural allies utterly at odds.
The other thing Khoury’s got going for him is a stunning cast. Even if a lot of them dropped multiple lines opening night, there’s no mistaking their precision, thoughtfulness, and nuance, even when momentarily stilted dialogue turns certain exchanges into staged college debates. No one better demonstrates command of Khoury’s script than Steve Silver as gracious hatemonger Daniel Baker. His unwavering poise, unfailing eloquence, and unshakeable conviction make his facile equation of Islam and terrorism frighteningly convincing. Khoury turns Daniel—the play’s irredeemable villain—into its most levelheaded character. It’s a courageous move, and the play’s greatest success.
It’s also the most depressing aspect of Mosque Alert. While most everyone else muddles through moral complexities, identifying his or her own lapses, striving to understand or at least accommodate other points of view, Daniel is his own echo chamber. He recasts intricate messes into clear, satisfying dichotomies of good and bad. He makes everything easy. After an evening with him, it’s hard to believe the Islamophobes won’t always win. v