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“Mosque4Mosque” by About Face Theatre a comedy with a message

It is a truth universally acknowledged that mothers must meddle in their children’s love lives, and the Syrian American family in Omer Abbas Salem’s new play, “Mosque4Mosque,” is no different. In About Face Theatre’s production, directed by Sophiyaa Nayar, widowed matriarch Sara (Rula Gardenier) tries to find a suitable husband for her 32-year-old son, Ibrahim (Salem), going so far as to build him a profile on a dating site for queer Muslim men. However, Ibrahim is secretly dating a white man from the Christian college where he works as a therapist — and trying not to let his self-destructive tendencies ruin this promising relationship.

For many years, Sara and Ibrahim have co-parented the youngest member of the family, 18-year-old Lena (Gloria Imseih Petrelli), who has a scandalous secret of her own: she has joined the cheerleading team at her suburban Chicago high school. Billed as a family comedy, the play has sharp dialogue and plenty of situational humor, including a hilariously awkward scene in which Sara and Lena overhear Ibrahim and his boyfriend, James (Jordan Dell Harris), having sex offstage.

Darker themes surface as the play goes on, however. Given its setting in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, it’s not hard to pick up on the foreshadowing when Sara talks of returning to Damascus to defend her legal claim to her late mother’s house. Remember what happened to travelers from Syria, including green card holders like Sara, who tried to reenter the U.S. in January 2017?

Salem is not the first playwright to address the effects of the Trump administration’s policies on immigrant families. American Blues Theater recently premiered Benjamin Benne’s “Alma,” which focuses on an undocumented Mexican American woman and her U.S.-born daughter. It’s tempting to heave an exhausted sigh at the prospect of revisiting 2016, but such stories take on new urgency now that Trump has announced a third presidential run. Though fictional, these plays represent the harrowing experiences of real American families.

Themes of sexuality and race intersect as we get to know Ibrahim and James better. Rejected by his father when he came out before the older man died of cancer, Ibrahim feels like a late bloomer and has never been in a long-term relationship before James. Yet he has trouble committing to monogamy; we learn that he regularly cheated during the couple’s first six months together.

James, a lawyer, comes off as earnest, smitten and eager to please, though his entitled streak shows on occasion. A well-meaning white liberal, he sometimes fails to understand microaggressions and is overconfident in his ability to help when the Muslim ban shatters his boyfriend’s family. He also feels hurt by Ibrahim’s caginess about disclosing their relationship to colleagues and friends, although the reason for this becomes clear in the second act.

Frankly, I was shocked when James appeared in a Wheaton College T-shirt, revealing the identity of his and Ibrahim’s previously unnamed employer. As a Wheaton graduate, I am painfully aware of the evangelical institution’s fraught relationship with both Muslim and LGBTQ communities, so it seemed far-fetched that Ibrahim would land a job there in the first place. As a queer Muslim man, Ibrahim may not have been hired unless he lied about his personal life throughout the application process — a scenario that’s possible but begs the question, “Why Wheaton?”

Gloria Imseih Petrelli, Rula Gardenier and Omer Abbas Salem in "Mosque4Mosque" by About Face Theatre at the Den Theatre.

Although it’s unclear how he got there, Ibrahim’s minority status in his workplace mirrors his little sister’s experiences at a mostly white high school. Lena makes it her own personal challenge to become one of the popular girls and succeeds, even getting elected to the homecoming court — although she fears wearing her hijab to school after the 2016 election. Ibrahim navigates straight, white spaces in his own quieter way, frequenting the “cruising bathroom” and, of course, dating James.

While the complicated characters of “Mosque4Mosque” often make choices that hurt themselves or their loved ones, they also make sacrifices for each other and band together in the toughest of circumstances. The play offers a picture of resilience, but not in a romanticized sense — it’s honest about human flaws and ends on a somber, uncertain note that belies the label of comedy. One can only hope that this family will find their way back to Sara’s kitchen table where they can all laugh together again.

Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.

Review: “Mosque4Mosque” (3 stars)

When: Through Dec. 17

Where: About Face at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $5-$35 (pay what you can) at or

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