Founded 20 years ago by creative and life partners Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani as Silk Road Theatre Project, Silk Road Rising has spent most of those years in residence at downtown’s Chicago Temple, first presenting readings and one full production in an upstairs space, and then building out a basement theater in Pierce Hall, where they presented works reflecting pan-Asian, North African, and Muslim experiences while advocating for better representation of those stories and more opportunities for artists with roots in the diverse Silk Road diaspora across the nation.
Their name comes from the moniker for the ancient trade route that ran from the Far East to the Mediterranean. Khoury is a Chicago native of Syrian Orthodox and Polish and Slovak descent, while Gillani is a Pakistani Ismaili Muslim immigrant. They changed the company’s name over a decade ago to reflect their expansion into digital work; as Reader columnist Deanna Isaacs noted in September 2020, “During a 2011 interview, Khoury had told me that they were intrigued by the dissemination opportunities of the Internet and were aiming to produce video plays that would expand their reach to an international audience.”
Now Silk Road is giving up their downtown space. But their mission remains expansive.
I caught up with Khoury and Gillani earlier this week to discuss their next steps. Gillani, who suffered the double whammy of a heart attack and stroke in September 2019, is interested in creating work “for people with aphasia in the arts.” He and Khoury have formed a partnership with the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual and Performing Arts at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. TVCPA has also been working with the university’s STAR (Stroke & Aphasia Recovery) program through the Health Sciences Center. Silk Road is building an aphasia arts forum with the university.
Gillani’s stroke affected the left side of his brain, which is where the language centers are located. He’s still working to regain speech fluency, but he’s determined to be onstage himself in 2026, performing his own story: The Art of Aphasia. “We want to give hope to people who’ve had strokes and traumatic brain injuries,” he says. When we talk about the variety of work that found its way onstage at Silk Road (which formed specifically as “an intentional and creative response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001”), Gillani points out that music from several cultural traditions formed a big part of that work.
The decision to move away from Pierce Hall isn’t abrupt or unexpected, as Khoury notes. The company had originally planned to give up the space at the end of 2021, and then asked for an extension from First United Methodist Church (which is the congregation housed at Chicago Temple) for another year. But with COVID still very present, they reevaluated that extension and realized that it didn’t make financial sense to stay in that space. (Khoury explains that, while they hadn’t been on a lease or paying rent as a resident company, they did make a monthly gift to the church.)
Khoury also notes that they’ll continue working with the church on Silk Road’s Polycultural Institute. But the work of that emerging institute, as well as the company’s continued and growing interest in multimedia production, means that focusing on finding a venue that can facilitate that kind of production has become more of a priority.
“We want to have a soundstage that will really allow us to accelerate our output and elevate the quality of the work. We’re very proud of the digital work that we’ve done since 2010 and that we’ve continued doing. But we want something that’s more—I don’t know if the word is ‘stable,’ but just kind of more established. We’re not walking away from live theater and we’re having conversations with different universities about potential collaborations.” That could mean producing shows and forums in different neighborhoods in the city.
Reflecting on their time at Pierce Hall, Khoury says, “We were able to build community and I think tell some really great stories and build these wonderful relationships with playwrights and artists and audiences. It will always be a major part of the Silk Road story, but that story is gonna be a long story.”