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Theater Review by Deirdre Sinnott
My Name is Rachel Corrie, from the writings
of Rachel Corrie,
Minetta Lane Theater, New York City, opening date October 15, 2006 runs through December 30.
October 19, 2006
Quiet and immovable, the battered concrete walls that define the set sit like an ancient Greek chorus. They judge the humans whose lives play out before them. We know when we walk into the theater that Rachel Corrie died while attempting to protect a cement home from the heavy and unforgiving blade of an Israeli bulldozer. The monoliths evoke both that house and the wall that Israel is building through Palestine.
Rachel Corrie joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) January 25, 2003 and died 50 days later on March 16th in Rafah, a town in the West Bank that borders Egypt. The ISM is a group that organizes volunteers from all over the world to take an active, but non-violent role in defense of the Palestinian people, their homes, farms, water sources, and to act as witnesses and media conduits to the daily struggle to survive under Israeli occupation.
On one side of the stage concrete rubble litters the perimeter and on the other sits Rachel’s warm bedroom in Olympia, Washington. It’s the series of warm bright tones, red wall covered with photos and clippings from magazines, and a comfortable bed with a flowered quilt, that contrast with the stark coldness of her future.
Rachel, played wonderfully by Megan Dodds, talks about her life while she proceeds to pack away all of the symbols of girlhood: fashion magazines, books, a tumble of clothing (including some silly, silver, sparkling boots), family photos, a radio, and the lamp that looks like any bought in the local five and dime store. She pulls her bed offstage and shoves the red wall aside fully revealing the stark reality for many people in the occupied territories of Palestine.
Rachel has just moved from the land of safety to the war zone.
The play isn’t just a coming of age story; it is one person’s transformation from idealist to realist. Rachel finds the facts of life seriously challenging her long-held beliefs about human nature. She writes a long email to her mother explaining her shifting ideas.
For a long time I’ve been operating from a certain core assumption that we are all essentially the same inside, and that our differences are by and large situational. That goes for everybody — Bush, Bin Laden, Tony Blair, me, you, Sarah, Chris, Dad, Gram, Palestinians, everybody of any particular religion. I know there is a good chance that this assumption actually is false. But it’s convenient, because it always leads to questions about the way privilege shelters people from the consequences of their actions. It’s also convenient because it leads to some level of forgiveness, whether justified or not.
The play, a series of journal entries and emails from was edited together by actor Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, a long-time editor for The Guardian newspaper of London. After two successful runs in London the production prepared to move to New York City to appear Off-Broadway at New York Theater Workshop (NYTW) when it was suddenly canceled.
So why is the moving story of one person who died in an area that has seen so many deaths controversial? Artistic Director James Nicola of the NYTW “postponed” a scheduled production of the play (It was going to open March 22, 2006) when he “discovered how deeply ingrained the attitudes were on all sides and what a marketing and contextualizing challenge this posed.” (Playgoer) Katharine Viner characterized Nicola’s move this way, “The political climate, we were told, had changed dramatically since the play was booked. As James Nicola, the theater's 's artistic director, said Monday, 'Listening in our communities in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon's illness and the election of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections, we had a very edgy situation.' Three years after being silenced for good, Rachel was to be censored for political reasons. …We always felt passionately that it was a piece of work that needed to be seen in the United States.” (LA Times 3/1/06 Opinion section)
Luckily when Pam Pariseau and Dena Hammerstein of the Minetta Lane Theater saw the show in London they “thought, God, it would be so amazing to present that Off-Broadway so that New York theatergoers would have that same experience.” (NY Times 6/22/06) The show opened on October 15, 2006 to favorable reviews.
But the issue is bigger than the self-censorship practiced by NYTW. It’s the same issue that Rachel Corrie died for, Palestinian self-determination. The issue of the Middle East, especially regarding Israel and Palestine, is subject of much argument world-wide. However the thing that motivated Rachel Corrie was the fact that the United States supports Israel with billions of dollars every year. Rachel said that she wanted to join the ISM in Gaza “…to meet the people who are on the receiving end of our [U.S.] tax dollars.” The U.S. government has always had various reasons for supporting Israel, many of which have nothing to do with “supporting democracy” or fighting anti-Semitism. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly said that “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”
The reason why the region is so critical is oil. Oil is not simply an extremely valuable commodity; it is a strategic resource and one that the U.S. has struggled to control for most of the last century. By having a client and dependent state in the Middle East, the U.S. has been able to project its considerable interests there. While some claim that powerful lobbies control U.S. policy toward Israel, it is actually the other way around. If the billions of U.S. dollars that pour into Israel each year were withdrawn the government there might collapse. That fact makes the U.S. complicit in Israeli actions, be they bombing civilian targets in Lebanon or bulldozing Palestinian homes in Gaza. Rachel Corrie felt that complicity deep in her heart when she stood before the American-made bulldozer and tried to stop it from destroying a friend’s home.
Some argue that the ISM is a pawn of the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades. However the founders of the ISM see themselves as a non-violent activists carrying out civil disobedience. Their mission statement reads: “As enshrined in international law and UN resolutions, we recognize the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via legitimate armed struggle. However, we believe that nonviolence can be a powerful weapon in fighting oppression and we are committed to the principles of nonviolent resistance.” (ISM) The group is by no means monolithic, various activists from all over the world bring their own views, experiences, and analysis to the actions that they take. Rachel Corrie was both distinctly North American and an emerging internationalist. Several ISM volunteers have been injured by Israeli Defense Forces including Tom Hurndall who died after being shot in the head.
Most cable television viewers who have taken the time to watch the BBC news or news shows from other European countries notice a stark difference in the way the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is presented. The European stations talk about the devastating effect of attacks and incursions by the vastly superior Israeli military on civilian populations in Palestine. Any such new coverage in the U.S. is muted in a false attempt to put an equal sign between the violence of the oppressor and the resistance of the oppressed.
The question we in the United States must ask is: how can we stop the use of our taxes to oppress people in Palestine, Iraq, Latin America, Africa, Asia or any where else, including here at home?
In a final email Rachel Corrie said to her mother:
What we are paying for here is truly evil. Maybe the general growing class imbalance in the world and consequent devastation of working people’s lives is a bigger evil. Being here should make me more aware of what it means to be a farmer in Columbia, for example. …This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for all of us to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do any more. …Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it. This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world. This is not at all what the people here asked for when they came into this world. This is not what they are asking for now. This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into when you decided to have me. This is not what I meant when I was two and looked at Capitol Lake and said, “This is the wide world and I’m coming to it.”
Rachel’s life and determination have been preserved by her words and the generosity of her family for sharing them with the world. Rachel’s death was not more or less important than any person’s who has died in the conflict, but luckily she was a passionate and prolific writer. She filled her life with the struggle for justice and My Name is Rachel Corrie fills the stage with vitality and meaning.