A monologue fashioned from the words of a woman killed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict creates drama on-stage and off
By Cathleen McGuigan
Oct. 16, 2006 – Do you remember the name Rachel Corrie? Maybe not. She was a 23-year-old American peace activist killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer as she tried to block the destruction of a Palestinian’s house in Gaza in March 2003. She became more than a footnote in the Middle East conflict when her own words—from her journals and e-mails—were shaped into an award-winning one-actor play in London called “My Name is Rachel Corrie.” But when the show’s U.S. opening last spring was cancelled at the New York Theater Workshop (best known for spawning the musical “Rent”), a controversy erupted. The theater’s artistic director had made his decision after talking to leaders in the Jewish community; he later told The New York Times, “It seemed as though if we proceeded, we would be taking a stand we didn’t want to take.” The London producers called the cancellation “censorship.”
With that advance drum roll, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” finally opened last weekend at the intimate Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, brought here by new producers. And here’s the good news: the play is hardly a political diatribe. Artfully adapted (by actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner), it’s about a passionately idealistic young woman, whose childhood causes included ending world hunger and saving the spotted owl. If that sounds painfully earnest, here’s even better news: Corrie was a lovely and powerful writer—charming, quirky, funny, and given to painting strong images in a memorable voice. We spend the first 40 minutes of the 90-minute
show just getting to know her, in her messy red-painted bedroom in Olympia, Washington. As engagingly portrayed by Megan Dodds, her blond ponytail bounces as her quick mind moves from salmon swimming in city pipes to helping the homeless to philosophizing on life and death. “My mother would never admit it,” she announces cheerfully, “but she wanted me exactly as I turned out—scattered, deviant and LOUD.”
When Rachel lands in Gaza to join a group of international protestors, her nerve and idealism are tested, as she encounters curfews, checkpoints, gunfire and even helps recover a dead body from a field as an Israeli tank fires close by. Her writing grows grim. She still makes lists in her journal as she did before, but the lists sound like this: “In Dr. Samir’s garden. Fig tree…Dill, lettuce, garlic. White plastic chairs, deflated soccer ball…Two bulldozers, tanks.” She wrestles with her sense of social justice—she can leave, but the Palestinian families she’s come to know cannot. And she wrestles with the politics of supporting Palestinians, acknowledging the suffering of ordinary people in Israel. She writes her mother: “I’m really scared and questioning the fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop.”
While that may sound naïve, it’s hard to disagree with such a powerful plea for peace. And after seeing the play, it would be hard to dislike Corrie’s singular personality or to doubt her sincerity. That’s not to say the show won’t spark debate, which, according to producers Dena Hammerstein and Pam Pariseau, is precisely what they want. “After we first saw the play in London,” says Pariseau, “We went to dinner with some people and ended up talking for two-and-a-half hours about the play. We thought, when was the last time that happened?” Some friends tried to talk Pariseau out of taking on a show with such controversial underpinnings. But, says Hammerstein, “We really feel there’s been a controversy about something that people didn’t know first hand. We really hope by bringing the play here, people can judge for themselves.”
The first night of previews, they gave a free ticket to a man passing out pro-Israel fliers outside the theater. Other nights have drawn other protestors passing out leaflets. To formalize the debate, the producers also planned audience “talk-backs” after some shows, with participants ranging from Rachel Corrie’s parents—who originally provided the show’s material—to playwrights David Hare and Tony Kushner. Here is a play where the real dialogue begins when the curtain comes down, theater that not only stirs our hearts but sticks in our heads.