Review of "My Name is Rachel Corrie"

Culture Watch


Ms. Fay is an associate professor of Middle East history at Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD

The controversial play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, closed the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to sold-out houses on the final weekend of the festival. Produced for the first time in London at the Royal Court Theater in April 2005, the play has met obstacles and provoked heated debates in the U.S. when theater companies have attempted to mount productions of the play, and its inclusion in the CATF was no exception.

The play is based on the diaries and emails of Corrie, an idealistic young woman from Olympia, Washington, who, as a volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was killed at the age of 23 by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip on March 16, 2003. That much – and little else – is agreed upon by those who think that the play speaks truths about the 40-year Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank that audiences, particularly in the U.S., need to hear and those who have criticized the play as the writings of a dangerously naïve young woman who served as a front for “terrorists” who have taken the lives of Israeli civilians. Rachel Corrie’s life and death have become a template on which opposing sides in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis write their narratives of the past and contemporary events.

As we witness Corrie’s political awakening during her short time in Gaza, her words take on significance beyond the immediate because they go to the heart of the conflict and the debates about the nature of the Israeli occupation, the rights of the occupied to resist occupation, the definition of terrorism and the responsibilities of the occupying power toward the civilian population. The play demonstrates the power of language to construct reality and Corrie, by leaving behind a written record of her time in Gaza, has now become part of the historiography of the conflict.

At the performance on Saturday, July 28, the closing weekend of the festival, Anne Marie Nest, the actress portraying Corrie, was speaking passionately about the violence perpetrated against the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army. When she said that most of the Palestinians are civilians who just want to live in peace, a member of the audience jeered loudly enough to be heard by Nest, who immediately turned toward the sound and continued to speak as though addressing that person directly. Perhaps nothing conveyed so succinctly the yawing chasm between those like Corrie who assert that Palestinian civilians are supposed to be protected by international law and have little if no defense against one of the strongest militaries in the world and those who support Israel’s claims that it is fighting terrorists and defending Israeli civilians who have been subject to suicide bombings and rocket attacks.

When Corrie arrived in the Gaza Strip on January 25, 2003, she was by her own admission unschooled in the conflict in which she was intervening as a volunteer with the ISM. However, it would probably be inaccurate to describe her as politically naïve, since she is clearly aware of the power imbalances within the global system and of her own privileged position as a white woman from an upper-middle-class American family who, unlike the residents of Gaza whom she meets, befriends, and lives with, can leave at any time and escape the danger and hardships of occupation.

Although the play runs without an intermission, it has two parts. The first takes place when Corrie is still in Olympia and a student at Evergreen State College who is thinking back on her childhood and wondering about her future. She is also playful and funny, talks about boys and dating and pastes pictures of family and friends on her bedroom wall. In short, she is an idealistic American teenager trying to figure out where she belongs and what she should do with her life. Eventually, she decides to become an ISM volunteer and leaves for Israel.

The second part of the play opens with her arrival in Gaza during the third year of the Second Intifada or uprising of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank against the Israeli occupation. As a volunteer for the ISM, which has declared itself committed to non-violent support for Palestinians living under occupation, Corrie and other “internationals” as the volunteers are called, are supposed to use their status to protect Palestinian civilians by living with them and attempting to protect them, their homes, wells and vegetable gardens by standing between them and the Israeli soldiers and bulldozers.

The Israeli occupation forces have a history of demolishing the homes of those suspected of aiding or participating in acts they define as “terrorism” and Palestinians call “resistance.” At the time Corrie was in Gaza, Israeli bulldozers were also destroying homes in the path of the wall under construction along the border with Egypt. She and other volunteers were attempting to protect the home of a local pharmacist, Dr. Samir, who lived there with his wife and three children, when she was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer.

Although there were eyewitnesses to Corrie’s death, one of whom, Tom Dale, also an ISM volunteer, is heard at the end of the play recounting the details, there are alternative versions as well. Those alterative narratives from supporters of Israel contend that the driver could not see Corrie, that he was clearing brush and not attempting to demolish a home or that he was looking for tunnels used to smuggle arms from Egypt to Palestinians in Gaza. One version of the events surrounding Corrie’s death appears in the program for the CATF theater production as a paid advertisement produced by www.RachelCorrieFacts.org, which placed a similar ad in the playbill for the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of the play in the spring of 2007.

Ed Herendeen, the founder and artistic director of CATF, who directed the Corrie production at Shepherdstown, said he was not unaware of the controversy surrounding the play. The play originally performed in London in 2005 was co-written by Katherine Viner, an editor for the Guardian newspaper, and the British actor, Alan Rickman, who also directed the London production. The play was supposed to have its U.S. premiere in October 2006 at the New York Theater Workshop when, after considerable opposition to its performance, it was postponed and then cancelled. Herendeen, who was following the controversy, stepped in to purchase the rights for CATF. The London company eventually staged the play in New York by bringing its company and production to the Minetta Theater. According to Herendeen, there was concern among the members of the CATF board about mounting a production of the play. However, only one trustee, Alan Young, ultimately resigned and, according to Herendeen, withdrew his verbal pledge of $100,000 to the theater.

Although Herendeen thought he was prepared for the controversy, he was shocked at how vitriolic it became, particularly when he was called anti-Semitic by some of his critics. Herendeen said he was drawn to the play not because of its politics but because he was reminded of his own youth when, like Corrie, he was idealistic and wanted to change the world. As for those who argue that My Name is Rachel Corrie is a “biased and unbalanced” work, Herendeen said, “Art is not supposed to be balanced … It is a forum not a debate.” The controversy did not hurt CATF’s 2007 season because, according to Herendeen, attendance was up 3 percent and contributed income was up by $21,000. As Herendeen said, CATF might have lost some supporters, but it has gained a new audience for its productions.

Resources:
  • The website of the Rachel Corrie Foundation, created by her family and friends, at: http://rachelcorriefoundation.org/
  • The International Solidarity Movement website at : http://www.palsolidarity.org/
  • The Electronic Intifada with a Palestinian perspective on the occupation at www.electronicintifada.net
  • www.rachelcorriefacts.org. The website of the Seattle-area group that alleges the play distorts the fact and gives an incomplete version of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The group organized when the Seattle Repertory Theatre staged a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie in March through May this year. The website includes links to other sites including the Anti-Defamation League at www.adl.org

Related Links

  • Ronald Radosh: The Myth of Rachel Corrie