‘Mosque Alert’ finds depth

Valparaiso University prides itself in being a diverse and inclusive community, and in a time when the media is flooded with news of racial injustice and civil right violations, Valpo has tried to encourage students to engage in conversations about sensitive and sometimes controversial issues.

It can sometimes be difficult to know where to begin such conversations, particularly in a community that is still mostly white and mostly Christian. That’s where “Mosque Alert,” the play currently performing in the Valparaiso University Center of the Arts studio theatre, comes in.

“Mosque Alert,” written by Jamil Khoury and directed by Professor George Potter, takes a look at a community thrown into turmoil when plans for a proposed Muslim community center in downtown Naperville, Illinois are met with negative backlash. A fictional parallel to many similar real-world situations, most notably the backlash faced by the so-called ‘ground-zero mosque,’ the show addresses the islamophobia prevalent in today’s American culture. It speaks closely to recent incidents in the news proving to be a topical show and relevant to American audiences.

The show’s staging makes good use of the studio theatre’s limited space with the audience along the four walls. The homes of the three main families are each set on platforms that slide in and out from each corner, allowing a variety of sets and settings to be used without long blackouts and complicated scene changes. The cast is strong as is expected of Valpo’s theatre department including several newer faces to the stage, and they are able to portray sensitive issues with a level of respect. It’s a bit slow in the beginning, but once we’ve been introduced to all the characters, things eventually start to pick up energy. It’s a show that addresses some serious and complicated ideas while still having room to be quite fun, while trying to engage the audience in a significant way.

One of the best things “Mosque Alert” does is treat the audience as a part of its world. From small pieces of dialogue that break the fourth wall to more overt staging choices that include characters speaking directly to the audience, the show does its best to emphasize that point. The opening scene involves a character giving a presentation of the proposed building to an unseen zoning board that will decide whether or not to approve the construction. Since the actual board doesn’t appear onstage, the speaker instead addresses the audience directly.

This staging is paralleled at the end of the first act during the pivotal town hall meeting, and here it is much more clear what the show is doing. The audience isn’t watching these characters speak in front of an invisible community; the audience is the community, and when that community is called to action, the play is calling on all of us.

“Mosque Alert” wants to start a discussion about Islamophobia in America. Its strongest moments are those in which the fourth wall comes down and when it includes the audience in the action. The message in these moments is clear: the issues faced in the world of the play are issues in our world and the failure of the community to address these issues are reflective of our own failures. This is also where I think the play could further.

Despite playing directly to the audience in key moments like the town hall meeting, other aspects of the show feel trapped in the conventions of realism. Most of the action happens on a personal level for the characters, a series of conversations between family members and friends as they try to make sense of difficult social and political issues.

This isn’t bad inherently, but when the characters are speaking to each other rather than giving speeches, the show becomes largely indifferent to the audience. The problem is that by only interacting with the audience at certain points in the action and not others, the show risks feeling less like the start of a dialogue and more like a public service announcement. Some of this is fixed by the staging, but I would like to see the idea of the audience as part of the show taken even further.

The script for “Mosque Alert” is brand new. The show was originally produced at Knox College earlier this year, but it has reportedly gone through major changes and revisions since then even so far as to continue to be revised during the rehearsal process. In some ways, it feels like it still had a ways to go. Aspects of the dialogue don’t feel completely natural and you can hear it at times in the voices of the actors. Certain characters are more nuanced than others, and the resolution to the climax was both overly theatrical and a bit of a cop out.

Despite its flaws, “Mosque Alert” succeeds in its intentions; it provides an insight into the lives Muslim Americans and some of the issues they face, as well as offering an opportunity for discussing these issues at Valpo. At its foundation are strong ideas, and the cast and crew bring to life these ideas with the importance they deserve. It’s worth seeing if for nothing else as something to make you think.

The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch. Contact Peter Crapitto at torch@valpo.edu.

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