Inspiration in the Overlap

Silk Road Theatre Project and the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple

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Originally Published in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Criterion - A Publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Revised in 2017.

There’s nothing unusual about a theatre company operating out of a church basement. The genealogy of western theatre is storied with church basements. On a performative, perhaps even metadramatic level, the union of church and theatre routinely manifests in such phenomena as storytelling, ritual, liturgy, and pageantry. And yet, beyond these seemingly obvious connections, the relationship between my theatre company, Silk Road Theatre Project, and our hosts at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple(where we have been theatre-in-residence since 2004) appears to have penned a whole new storyline in this age old symbiosis.

A Christian church and a non-religious theatre company forge a secular partnership based on shared values and intersecting missions. Widely divergent in both size and age, and functioning in seemingly distinct realms, the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple and Silk Road Theatre Project recognized early on that our shared commitments to storytelling, diversity, dialogue, and the exploration of new ideas and perspectives, placed us in  communion with one another. And if performed narratives and the raising of consciousness are cornerstones to both of our “ministries,” why not find inspiration in the overlap?

Unlike the established trajectory of a theatre in a church, ours is not a rental agreement. FUMC does not charge us rent or lease us space. Rather, they gift us a home from which we can operate, flourish and grow, right in the heart of the Loop theatre district. In fact, Pierce Hall, the mixed use, lower level facility we share with the church, was renovated by FUMC with our needs very much in mind. We in turn enhanced the space with furniture, technology and theatre accoutrements, as well as the creation of a new flow of traffic into the historic Chicago Temple building. The result is a beautiful, intimate, warm, flexible, jewel box of a theatre that also doubles as a hall for church functions and events, in addition to adjacent classrooms and a restaurant-quality kitchen that we enjoy access to.

That much of SRTP’s success is intricately linked to the generosity and hospitality of the FUMC community, and the visionary world view of Senior Pastor Philip Blackwell, is a fact we are enormously proud of. Our written agreement with FUMC is fair and remarkably comprehensive, guaranteeing our full artistic freedom and organizational independence, thus making it possible for us to operate there. And the congregation and staff have been gracious in a manner far surpassing anything we ever anticipated or imagined. Of course, the foundation to any successful collaboration exists in prospective partners. In this case, a venerable Loop congregation that predates the incorporation of the City of Chicago, and a young, polycultural theatre project created in response to a terrorist attack.

I will begin with the latter. Silk Road Theatre Project was co-founded in 2002 by my life partner and SRTP’s Executive Director, Malik Gillani, and me, the company’s Artistic Director. Our mission statement reads as follows: Silk Road Theatre Project showcases playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds, whose works address themes relevant to the peoples of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities. Through the creation and presentation of outstanding theatre, we aim to promote discourse and dialogue among multi-cultural audiences in Chicago.

Malik and I created SRTP as a proactive response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Realizing that the consequences of this catastrophic day were bound to reverberate for years to come, posing unique and urgent challenges to artists of all backgrounds, Malik and I, with our respective Pakistani American and Arab American backgrounds, felt compelled to create a company that could educate, promote dialogue, and heal rifts through the transformative power of theatre. That theatre would be the medium in which we’d advance cultural change seemed a given—a decision dictated by our mutual love of the art and my vocation as a playwright. Tragically, in December 2003, a year and a half after setting out, the imperative of our decision was horrifically reinforced when Malik’s brother, Nader, was murdered in Atlanta, GA in what police declared an anti-Muslim hate crime.

Our activist natures propelled us to respond to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments sweeping the US in the aftermath of 9/11. Our world had changed dramatically and our identities made suspect, loathed far beyond any “recognizable” or “garden variety” brand of bigotry. Furthermore, our names, and Malik’s “brown” appearance, seemed to call into question our American citizenship. And we felt increasingly alarmed by arguments surmising a “clash of civilizations”—a deeply troubling thesis that quickly gained traction among key policy makers and opinion shapers.

In our earliest, pre-SRTP brainstorming sessions, we set a goal to create a forum to counter negative representation of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples with representation that was authentic, multi-faceted, and grounded in human experience. Likewise, we wanted to create a forum for introspection and debate among Chicago’s Middle Eastern and Muslim communities, while bringing to the forefront issues all too often dismissed in our communities as “controversial,” or “uncomfortable,” if they’re addressed at all.

It wasn’t long before our idea expanded beyond the Middle Eastern and Islamic realms. Not surprising, as our instincts have always been cross-cultural. We love to seek the interconnectedness of peoples and experiences, and to relish the conversations that arise in the process. Each play we’ve produced to date has either addressed conflicts within or between communities, including conflicts between Silk Road peoples and non-Silk Road peoples. If SRTP were to articulate a worldview, it would be one that rejects neat and orderly categorizations while eschewing identity politics that are narrow and self-serving. While conjuring a world larger than our own, we found ourselves bumping against random and repeat references to the historic Silk Road; it soon became obvious that we had stumbled upon the very “road map” to our vision.

Inadvertently, we constructed an identity politic that allowed an Asian story and a Middle Eastern story and a Mediterranean story to inhabit the same plane, to coexist inclusive of one another and in dialogue with one another. Silk Road Theatre Project thus officially came into existence in summer 2002 as the business name of Gilloury Institute, the registered 501(c)3 not-for-profit that Malik and I had submitted for approval just months prior. Our vocabularies would quickly expand to include such terms as Silk Road playwrights, Silk Road stories, Silk Road actors, Silk Road content. SRTP had become the nation’s first ever theatre company dedicated to representing such a diverse grouping of peoples and cultures.

“Silk Road” refers of course to the great trade routes that originated in China and extended across Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe, from the 2nd century B.C. until about the 16th century A.D. The dominant land routes connected China to Syria, adjoining sea routes to create an East-West corridor linking Japan to Italy. These transcontinental caravans resulted not only in trade, of which silk was an important commodity, but also in tremendous cross-cultural interaction among the peoples of the regions—interaction that fostered the exchange of ideas and the fusion of art and aesthetics.

The legacy of the Silk Road is one associated with rich traditions of oral narrative, epic poetry, and storytelling; it serves SRTP as both a geographic guide and a metaphor for intercultural dialogue. If we view the Silk Road on a contemporary map, the many trade routes established and joined by the Silk Road comprise some two-thirds of humanity! Furthermore, it was not a legacy “invented” in Orientalist accounts and depictions, but one proudly embraced by the peoples and governments of Silk Road countries.

The storyteller tradition, combined with our love for the written word and my shameless bias towards playwrights, has informed SRTP’s identity as a playwright focused theatre (as opposed to the other dominant models, e.g. an actor focused theatre or a director focused theatre). We believe that representation begins at home, and that a playwright’s subjectivity is greatly informed by his or her cultural background. The term “playwright/protagonist imperative” is one I coined to describe the rule I follow when selecting the plays we produce. Playwright must be of a Silk Road background, and the protagonist, or a central character, must also be of said background.

When cultural background and family heritage inspire creativity, representation is planted squarely in the author's domain. This is why artists are best suited to representing themselves. In producing playwrights who hail from the communities about which they write, we are aligning the company’s subjective voice with aesthetics and perspectives rooted in Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean experiences. The characters rendered are neither angels nor demons, their stories neither celebrations nor indictments, but complex, three dimensional, sometimes painful portrayals of the human condition. And in giving voice to playwrights seldom heard on the American stage, we aim to integrate their plays within the canon of American theatre.

SRTP’s tag line is Global Theatre for a Global City. We take notions of global citizenry and global thinking quite seriously, and we share a keen appreciation for the role art plays in fostering understanding between peoples. America’s relationships with countries of the Silk Road have become increasingly characterized by conflict and complexity, and we feel it right to defuse some of that “angst” with the empathy that emerges when we find ourselves in someone else’s story. As a Chicago based company, SRTP contributes to the global education of Chicagoans by generating dialogue across the city’s diverse communities. SRTP’s audience has been singled out and celebrated as one of Chicago’s most diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, age, and economic status, and for our rare mix of first time and veteran theatregoers.

It is estimated that some one and half million people of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds live in the Chicago metropolitan area, and yet we seldom see ourselves on Chicago’s stages. The absence of such visibility reinforces our marginalization within American culture, and inhibits us from building bridges with the broader American public. This lack of Silk Road representation also discourages young people in our communities from pursuing careers in the performing arts. It erodes appreciation for theatre within our communities, stifling the cultivation of a potentially formidable theatre-going audience.

Therefore, we engage our mission with an overtly activist bent. We provide mentoring and professional opportunities to artists of Silk Road backgrounds. We partner with grassroots, community based organizations. We aim to expand the theatre community’s discourse on race and ethnicity. And we demonstrate that theatre with Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean content can indeed generate mainstream interest and success. The resonance of our mission and the quality of our product is, I humbly suggest, validated by the critical acclaim for our shows and in the many awards we’ve received, including: the 2008 Broadway in Chicago EMERGING THEATER AWARD, the 2008 City of Chicago HUMAN RELATIONS AWARD, and the 2007 Asian American Institute MILESTONE MAKERS AWARD.

It has been said that every partnership has its better half, and in this case, that would be our hosts at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. An institution with a rich and distinguished past, the First United Methodist Church is in fact the oldest congregation in Chicago. In 1831, six years before Chicago official founding, back when Fort Dearborn was an outpost on the United States’ western frontier, a group of Methodist circuit riders founded the church. Over its 177-year history, five buildings have provided the congregation a home in which to worship—the first being a log cabin on the north bank of the Chicago River. In 1838, in a move that foreshadowed the adventurousness and ingenuity of the young congregation, the log cabin was floated across the river and rolled on logs to the very site the church occupies today: the southeast corner of Washington and Clark Streets in the Chicago Loop. Of the church buildings that followed, one was razed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and others were outgrown and replaced, with each new building representing a bold improvement over the previous.

FUMC’s current home, the magnificent Historic Chicago Temple Building, was designed by the renowned architectural firm of Holabird & Roche. Construction began in 1922 and was completed two years later.  The Temple has long heralded for its architectural beauty and its magnificent spire. Constructed of gray and white Bedford stone and blending the grace of the French Gothic cathedral with the pragmatism of an American skyscraper, the Chicago Temple became, when first dedicated, the tallest building in Chicago. In addition to housing the church, the parsonage, the Chapel in the Sky, commercial spaces, and of course, Silk Road Theatre Project, the 27-story Chicago Temple building also features 17 floors of private offices, primarily occupied by attorneys.

Today, with more than 1000 members, the congregation has contributed enormously to Chicago’s spiritual, civic, and cultural development, having been described as “a microcosm of the history of Chicago and of the nation itself.” Celebrated as one of Chicago’s most diverse congregations, members hail from every ZIP Code in the city as well as 80+ suburbs. The congregation’s rich ethnic, racial and economic diversity, as well as its welcoming and affirming embrace of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, makes FUMC an ideal partner for SRTP.

Of special note is the relationship Malik and I enjoy with FUMC’s Senior Pastor Philip Blackwell. It is a relationship characterized by absolute trust and respect, not to mention a great deal of admiration. Malik is Muslim and I was raised in the Antiochian (Syrian) Orthodox Church, and yet we both refer to Phil as “our pastor!” Interestingly, Phil and I both received degrees from The University of Chicago Divinity School: he a Doctor of Ministry (1986) and me an A.M.R.S. (1992). I truly believe that the philosophical “aesthetics” of the Divinity School are alive and well both in the mission of SRTP and in our relationship with FUMC, and the degree to which my experience at the Divinity School informs my role as Artistic Director never ceases to amaze me.

If anyone were to tell me, back when SRTP was “gestating in the wombs of our minds,” that the most significant patron and champion of our vision would be a Methodist church (or any church for that matter), I would have dismissed the thought as impossible. But a funny thing happens when you start your own theatre company. Many who you expect will support you do not, and often your greatest supporters turn out to be those you never thought would care. My own religiosity is a sliding scale and a slippery slope, but I can say with certainty that the bond between FUMC and SRTP is a blessed one indeed. Amen to that.

Behind the Scenes

The following is an interview with Reverend Philip Blackwell, Senior Pastor at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.

How would you describe the relationship between FUMC and SRTP?

The relationship is based entirely on trust. We have a rigorous written agreement, but we hope that we will never have to refer to it to answer a question or address a concern. It also is a relationship that is growing; it is not stagnant. We continue to surprise ourselves with what might be possible.

How did you first meet Jamil and Malik?

Jamil and Malik arranged to see me about buying a block of tickets for one of the early plays of SRTP. When we met, it took me a while to glimpse the vision of what they were trying to do—start a theatre that would focus on stories written by people from the historic Silk Road about people from the historic Silk Road. All of this, they explained, was in response to the attacks of 9/11. My imagination began to run free as they spoke, and I could see how what they understood as mission, and I as ministry, might overlap.

What compelled you to invite SRTP to become the theatre-in residence at the Chicago Temple?

The compelling notion was that both the church and the theatre are about storytelling, and that our core Christian story is a Silk Road story. I always have known that we cannot fully understand the story of Jesus unless we see him in both his historical and social context.  So it made sense to me to have, on location, a theatre project invested in telling stories that, in direct and indirect ways, comment upon the church’s story.

Do you see the respective missions of FUMC and SRTP as complementary?

It’s a key part of our mission, as a Christian church at the heart of the city, to encourage dialogue among people of different faiths, and of no particular faith. There must be a safe place to talk to one another. We best can accept one another once we have heard each other’s “story.” SRTP has had an enormous influence on this happening in Chicago.

How does SRTP fit into your vision of the Chicago Temple as a cultural destination?

There is an historic role for the church—often as a “cathedral”—to promote the arts and shape the culture. For centuries the churches of Europe were the patrons of music, drama, and dance. Today, the Chicago Temple can be a kind of oasis for cultural expression in the midst of the city’s governmental/financial/commercial district. The more we can bring people together in our sanctuary, and other public spaces, for cultural events, the more we are fulfilling our mission to serve the whole community. It cannot be only at 11 am, on Sundays, on our terms, that we are the church. We must be more than that to as many people as possible, as often as we can.

How do you address the issue of artistic freedom?

It is crucial that SRTP has artistic freedom. Without that, they would receive no grant money or community support. We at the church understand and honor that. All we ask is that the productions do not bring dishonor to the church, or undermine our work in the community. This is where trust is crucial.

Has SRTP proven a good partner for FUMC?

SRTP is a wonderful “foot forward” for us in the community. People in Chicago know about it who do not know about the church. So, it introduces us to a population whom we wouldn’t otherwise meet. It also gives us a distinctive claim that causes people to stop and think, “what kind of church is this that has a theatre in the basement and lets them do anything they want to do?” Also, within the life of the church, SRTP increasingly is providing programs and opportunities for members of the congregation to grow in their personal understanding of other cultures.

What role did SRTP play in the decision to renovate Pierce Hall on the church’s lower level?

The congregation had to restore Pierce Hall and the entire lower level of the Chicago Temple because water damage had made areas unsightly and unsafe. Our decision to do this was made just as we were in our initial conversations with SRTP. So we listened to the needs and hopes the theatre folks had for the space, and we tried to incorporate them into the master plan. It helped a great deal that STRP was willing to make some noticeable financial commitments toward the additions. We ended up with a space more versatile than we first had planned, and SRTP wound up with a home that has served them very well.

How has time-sharing with SRTP worked, given that Pierce Hall is a multi-user space?

Sharing space is always a matter of trade-offs, but it’s also a time of buy-ins. Because SRTP is part of our “extended family” (as is the tutoring program, the Chicago Humanities Festival, and the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service) we learn a lot from just being around each other. At the same time, I think that the actors and theatre crew have found it interesting, even meaningful, to be in a church. The shared space makes things complex — without SRTP around, things would be so boring!

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