On a frigid Sunday morning in December, the Goodman Theatre had a full house for a staged reading of Modern Women, a work in progress by actor-turned-playwright Omer Abbas Salem. The piece is a riff on Steel Magnolias, with the setting transferred from Louisiana to Skokie, and Southern belle archetypes remade into Arab and Indian aunties.

Steel Magnolias was among the first plays Salem saw as a student at Hinsdale South High School two decades ago. “It stuck with me because it was a story of people who found each other and loved each other just like a family would, even though they weren’t related,” the 34-year-old tells me at an Andersonville coffee shop the next day. “That felt really important to me.”

A scene-stealer on Chicago stages for the past decade, Salem is relatively new to writing; his first full production, an absurdist comedy called The Secretaries, opened just last spring at the tiny First Floor Theater. But his scripts were drawing fans at the city’s biggest theaters even before then: Two were given virtual readings by Steppenwolf and the Goodman in early 2021. 

Last fall, About Face Theatre premiered one of those, Mosque4Mosque, an incisive comedy about dating as a queer Muslim child of immigrants. Salem played the lead, but while he is also queer, Muslim, and a child of immigrants (from Turkey and North Africa), don’t assume the character was autobiographical. He wrote it to better understand someone he had been in a relationship with — a relationship that came to “a strange ending,” as Salem puts it. Composing Mosque4Mosque, he says, “was pretty cathartic.”

Up next: Jackalope Theatre will premiere his latest, Pretty Shahid, in June. Salem describes it as “a wild ’90s rom-com, with dance numbers and a soundtrack.” He’ll be in the cast, naturally: “I write a part for myself in every single play.”