By Andrew Ford Lyons
Orginally in The Palestine Chronicle
How quickly we backslide: In June of 1937 the federal government slapped chains and a padlock onto the doors of Maxine Elliot Theatre in New York. It was an attempt to halt a performance of “The Cradle Will Rock,” a Marc Blizstein musical the feds found far too full of dangerous ideas for public consumption. The show’s director, Orson Welles, rushed back from Washington, D.C., on opening day after a failed attempt to convince the government to lift its ban. He found about 600 people waiting to see the performance idling in front of the theater, along with his cast.
Welles got on the phone that day and eventually led the throngs of theater goers and his cast through the city’s streets to the Venice Theatre where, due to fear of reprisals and potential loss of work, the performers belted out their songs and spoke their lines while staying scattered amongst the audience under dimmed lights. Blizstein was the only one to take the stage that night to provide piano accompaniment.
Times change: it’s 2006. I scrutinize airline prices between Priceline, Expedia and JetBlue. I use online pull-down menus to dither between low-calorie, vegetarian and kosher in-flight meal options. Things stay the same: I head to New York in support of a play that — due to the weight of its content, not the merit of its art — suddenly lacks a home.
“My Name is Rachel Corrie” is that play. Rachel left her childhood home of Olympia, WA, to work as a human rights observer and peace activist in the Gaza town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, with the International Solidarity Movement. She was killed there on March 16, 2003, by a giant bulldozer operated by an Israeli soldier. The play consists of her words, beginning as a young girl. Her private journals and e-mails to family were edited into a narrative monologue by Guardian newspaper reporter Katherine Viner and actor Alan Rickman, who also directs the play. Bringing Rachel’s words to the stage is actress Megan Dodds.
I saw the play last October as it began its second sellout run at the Royal Court Theatre in London. “Surreal” fails to adequately describe what it was like to sit in that theater packed with British patrons watching a Californian actress vocalize the writings of this Oly Girl as comfortably as if they were her own. I live in Olympia, my adopted home for almost a decade. I had arrived in London that fall after spending the summer working as the media coordinator for ISM in the West Bank. Sitting next to me were Rochelle Gause and Serena Becker, women from Olympia who would be in Rafah a few weeks later working on behalf of the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project, an ambitious though not yet officially sanctioned group.
I went to the performance with a little trepidation. Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig, are friends. What if I hated it? I’m not usually a big fan of theatre featuring beat-you-over-the-head, overt political messages. I like some nuance and a trace of ambiguity. I knew the play had met with the Corries’ energetic approval. In the bar before curtain call I thought about how I’d respond to questions from folks back in Oly if I decided it tanked.
Ultimately, happily, I didn’t see it as a one-trick political piece. It was — and I realize I’m not the most objective reviewer out there — a stunning, simple piece of work with humor and sadness mingled throughout. There certainly is politics; It does address why a person might step outside the cozy environs of a rainy Northwest town to see what’s happening in the world, specifically relating to the business end of U.S. foreign policy. But these things are incorporated into a module of an entire person who refused to blindly accept party lines or to see other people as anything less than human and worthy of equal treatment. The script also sketches her relationships with an ex-boyfriend, her family, job, experiences at college and walking around downtown in “slutty boots.”
The descriptions of places in this play work like Star Trek transporter technology. Without a set change, you’re just instantly there. Half the play takes place in Olympia; the other happens in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I had not seen Palestine in weeks or Olympia in months, yet Dodd’s performance left me conflicted about which place I missed the most. It wasn’t just me. After the play a number of people asked me about Olympia and said they felt like they’d paid it a visit. Others said it made them want to visit.
The play ends somber, but not in despair. This isn’t anything that could be described as a cautionary tale. By introducing the audience to this young woman through her words, they get to see the rest of a person who since 2003 has been immortalized, but often as one- dimensional, distant and small, in an orange vest in front of an armor-plated Caterpillar bulldozer the size of two tanks stacked on top of one another.
After the play, we talked with Rickman and Dodds about plans to bring the play to the United States. He was cautiously optimistic about it getting here, but said it would be rough going to find the play a home in New York. I hoped it would come to Olympia first, or at least the Northwest. But New York was set as the launching point for the play’s journey in the New World. Still, I regarded Rickman’s skepticism skeptically. I didn’t see anything remarkably controversial that would keep it out of New York. There are tons of offerings in the New York theatre scene for anyone specifically looking to be offended by something. Consider “Red Light Winter” with all its naked actors simulating awkward sex at the Barrow Street Theatre. In light of that, a young woman standing on a stage in jeans and a vest talking about playing with Palestinian kids, her dad’s neoliberal capitalist job and breaking up with her boyfriend just didn’t seem to me all that controversial.
So I was dismayed to learn that the play, which was set to open at the Making Theatre in New York on March 22, was “postponed indefinitely” by the New York Theatre Workshop, which brought the world the musical “Rent.” After all, this is the year a Palestinian film about suicide bombers wins a Golden Globe and gets nominated for an Academy Award. It’s the year Steven Spielberg also gets an Oscar nomination for a film that portrays Israel as caught in — and culpable for — an endless cycle of violence and revenge. On March 16, the first museum-quality U.S. showing of contemporary Palestinian art opens at The Bridge Gallery in New York, and two Arab hip-hop groups, the Philistines and The N.O.M.A.D.S, are being hosted that same night by the Coda Lounge in a benefit to raise funds for “Slingshot Hip-Hop,” a documentary about Palestinian rappers in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.
With all this going on, what’s the big threat posed by a one-act, one-person, one-set play?
In the New York Times, James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, said: “We were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments.”
One can seldom control how people “position their arguments.” I don’t really think people should attempt to. For an art director, I don’t even think it’s in the job description. In fact, the best thing to do is give folks more access to information to allow them to better “position their arguments.” Nicola had the ability to let more people encounter Rachel’s writing and see what her life was about. He and the NYTW chose against offering people that chance.
In The Guardian, Nicola said this: “In our pre-production planning and our talking around and listening in our communities in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon’s illness and the election of Hamas, we had a very edgy situation. … We found that our plan to present a work of art would be seen as us taking a stand in a political conflict, that we didn’t want to take.”
Consider this: The conflict over the Occupied Palestinian Territories is not one of religion or of politics. It’s one of human rights. That’s a stand. I just took it right now in this paragraph. We all take them, even in our decisions to remain silent. Nicola and the NYTW, whether they admit it or not, took a stand when they chose to cancel this play. Unfortunately, it’s a stand against NYTWs own audience, and against open artistic expression on potentially touchy subjects. Even on such weak knees, it remains a stand.
And let’s not inflate the situation. Whether Sharon lives or dies or Hamas maintains its slim amount of control of the Palestinian Authority, this one-woman performance about an American peace activist — whether it’s in a British or a New York playhouse — isn’t likely to have much of a ripple amongst those living this conflict every day. Its message isn’t aimed at them. They already know about the issue, at some great cost. This show is geared toward the sort of audience that might end up at the Making Theatre during a month, such as March, when its protagonist was being discussed more in the U.S. media. These are the people who stand to be affected. That’s as edgy as it gets.
None of what Nicola said in the press made much sense. I liked “Rent” so I hastily pecked an e-mail to Nicola encouraging him to reconsider his decision. I didn’t expect a reply minutes later.
“From the first moment I read the text … I was under the spell of this extraordinary person (Rachel),” Nicola wrote. “I still am.” He added that he’d “very much like to see her represented here on our stage.”
He continued: “As you well know, there are many sinister and perhaps not-so-sinister forces out there that want to use Rachel’s life and writing to further their own ends.”
Who are these sinister forces he refers to? Mossad or Hamas or Homeland Security? The Sith? How is it that the likes of the Coda Lounge, The Bridge Gallery and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are somehow immune to these mysterious forces while the New York Theatre Workshop isn’t? Does Nicola need help with them? Folks working against illegal military occupations have a good amount of experience in dealing with such forces. He could ask some of them for advice. I asked him for more details about these forces, but received no response.
He also told me the play “was offered to us at the eleventh hour, and it meant trying to get it on the stage in an INSANELY short period of time. Making theatre is very old-fashioned–it’s inefficient, labor-intensive and time consuming.”
This didn’t jibe with what I knew about the play. It comes with the one set that consists of a chair, a table with a computer on it, a mattress and a wall. It’s all put together to be used by one actress with a single wardrobe change that happens mid-monologue. Everyone involved in it was given enough of a go-ahead from NYTW that they booked flights to New York. At one point, it must have seemed immanently doable.
“We asked our collaborators for some more time,” Nicola wrote me. “Somehow they turned that simple request into cries of ‘censorship.’ This has puzzled and bewildered us.”
I was bewildered by much of what Nicola wrote to me. But perhaps I can help clear up his puzzlement over the “censorship” allegation: This is censorship. NYTW invited people to bring this play to the United States for a March 22 performance, around a time when many other Palestinian-oriented events were to place in New York. After the fact, Nicola took the political temperature among a narrow segment of the population, and based on the results, called off the performance. NYTW stopped a play based not on the merit of the content, but rather on what certain people in the group thought the political and possibly economic response would be.
I was pleased to read in Nicola’s e-mail that he was so enchanted by Rachel’s writing. He’s going to get the opportunity to hear a lot of it. In response to the NYTW’s decision, people will be doing public readings of Rachel’s journals and e-mails. On March 16, the International Day of Action against the occupation, Rachel’s words will be heard around the world, from New York to Olympia, from Rafah to Tel Aviv.
Times change: It’s 2006. The U.S. government didn’t shut a play down this time. Rather, it was the work of overzealous fear-mongering. Things stay the same: like the folks performing “The Cradle Will Rock” proved in 1937, just because a theater kicks a play out, that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t go on.
I no longer think the play needs to come to the Northwest first. Here it will find an easy audience and a theater space that will readily act as host in short order. Since the weird political drama surrounding this stage drama started, it’s become evident that it’s back east that the play offers the most challenges. It should linger there for a while before coming home.
Still, as I prepare for a week in New York, I wonder what makes “My Name is Rachel Corrie” such a risky endeavor. A number of people in London a few months ago said the play made them want to see Olympia. And some, just a few, mentioned it made them want to see Palestine for themselves. Maybe that’s the threat.