Can you describe how both art and activism have informed Silk Road Rising’s mission from its start?
We were responding to September 11 and the subsequent anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-South Asian backlash. We were looking at the history of representation or mis-representation or no representation of what we call Silk Road peoples. That was the idea that emerged between 9/11 and our first production in 2003. It was really an activist commitment to help change the story and expand the story and create space for stories that were not being told on Chicago’s stages or America’s stages.
Early on we arrived at this idea of playwright-protagonist alignment—that the author of every play we would produce and their protagonist would share the same cultural background. We never wanted to do it in a celebratory way. It was always meant to be complicated and three-dimensional. The artist is posing questions, and those questions in themselves can be a form of activism. They can help us evolve our thinking and arrive at a more empathic place. All of that came from an activist place, but with a very clear commitment to the art.
So you found there were certain kinds of stories being told about Silk Road peoples and you wanted to tell more and different stories?
And they weren’t being told by people of Silk Road backgrounds. That’s the key piece, the self-representation we were looking for. And the historic Silk Road was a precolonial, pre–European imperialism legacy where there was an interdependence between very diverse peoples and a sharing not only of commodities or trade, but of stories and philosophies and religious beliefs. The Silk Road is obviously a very large expanse of cultures and communities, many of which have been historically pitted against each other or have had animosities and grievances. We wanted to think of our cultures as being in relationship to each other.
How has your understanding of art and activism changed since Silk Road Rising’s early days?
It’s always changing in response to shifts within the larger ecosystem of theatre. As a voice within the Chicago and national theatre communities, we’ve been pressing for people to expand their repertoire and trust their audiences and give their audiences the benefit of doubt that they may indeed be interested in these stories—they may indeed find themselves in a Chinese-American story or an Arab-American story. We also wanted the Silk Road communities to have a stake in theater and to look at the theater as a place to create art. So the activism has always worked on many levels.
Can you describe the distinction between the activist art you’re describing and political theatre?
A seamless relationship between art and activism is not about propaganda, it’s not about ideology, it’s not about feeding you a conclusion or instructing you. That work exists; we’re just not drawn to it. I balk at the thought of producing that kind of play because it feels heavy-handed and in some cases a bit coercive. We’ve never been drawn to didactic pieces. But plays that are overtly political can be great plays.
What have been a few plays you’ve produced that demonstrate this intersection of art and activism?
Adriana Sevahn Nichols’s Night Over Erzinga takes us from the Ottoman Empire to Adriana being born and growing up as a part-Armenian, part-Dominican person. The play does a lot of work toward creating awareness of the Armenian genocide. Shishir Kurup’s Merchant on Venice is an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Instead of Christians and Jews, it looks at the very complicated and sometimes contentious relationship between Hindus and Muslims in a South Asian context that’s little known to many Americans. And Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched looks at the Lebanese Civil War through a diasporic French-Canadian lens. It gives us many insights into how war dehumanizes and yet also humanizes its victims and how people negotiate the outcomes of terror.
There’s long been a cultural assumption that art is different from activism or greater than activism. Have you encountered that?
We’ve absolutely encountered that, probably more so in the early years. Some theatre critics have had a strong sense of a binary that exists between art and activism. But we never viewed it as either/or—it’s both. And that doesn’t lessen the arts; it enriches the arts. I remember hearing early on from some people that people don’t really “talk like that”—that they don’t have overtly political or philosophical conversations. And our response was, “Well, the people we know do.”
I remember, in 2005, an audience member at Yussef El Guindi’s Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith saying to the people around him, “This isn’t a play, this is an agenda.” This audience member could not see beyond the fact these were Egyptian Muslims and therefore the play was agenda driven. This individual once said to us, “You are not a theater, you are a social service organization.”
So if Ten Acrobats had a similar storyline but with white characters, that assumption would never be made?
Would never be made. If August: Osage County was about a Korean or Indian family with all the same dysfunctionality and despair, it would have been received through very different lenses. It would have been more difficult to disentangle the cultural specificity from everything happening in the world of the play. I’m not criticizing August, I’m using that as an example of having the license to tell a story without all the burden and baggage that so many playwrights of color face.
The work that “ethnic” playwrights create has often been categorized or dismissed as political and activist, regardless of the work itself.
Oh, yeah. It’s unfair to dismiss or diminish a play as political as if that’s somehow bad. If a play isn’t in service of white, normative, heteronormative assumptions or representations, it’s seen as counter-narrative and thus political. We don’t hear that anymore. People are less likely to say those things, even if they are perhaps thinking them.
So what has changed? Has the theatre changed, in part because of the work you’ve done? Has the larger culture changed? Or both?
I think it’s a combination. The culture is changing, and people are becoming much more accustomed and perhaps sympathetic to the discourses we have helped generate that think beyond rigid definitions of how to write a play or tell a story—and to the fact that there are people who live and breathe their politics.
Things have changed. There have been a lot of fights in American theatre and the Chicago theatre community. There’s been a lot of consciousness raising. But also, the stories that we’re seeing on Chicago’s stages are different stories. It is a much more diverse array of plays that are being produced—culturally, racially diverse. And that is testimony to a very significant shift. I’m not by any means saying things are perfect or how they should be. But they’re getting much better.
So the more representations we have, the less burden nonwhite playwrights feel to speak for their communities?
The more representation that’s out there, the more opportunities we have to experiment and to absolve ourselves of this burden of representation and to really tell the stories we want to tell because we’re not telling the singular story.
What kind of activist art and artistic activism does Silk Road Rising want to produce moving forward?
We have paused producing live theatre and will resume in 2025. We canceled four shows as a result of the pandemic, so we decided to work on other things, like a polycultural think tank we’ve wanted to do for years. But the bigger news is that the next iteration of Silk Road Rising is going to be the Silk Road Cultural Center of Chicago. Our plan is to start operating under that name in 2024, and our hope is to build a brick-and-mortar cultural center. We’ve been thinking of the cultural center model for many years as a way to bring theatre, film, visual art, literature, music, and maybe even culinary arts into our programming, to think about the relationship between different art forms and how there are many mediums to tell stories. For more information, visit www.silkroadrising.org. ●