By Lee Varian
Before even entering the door to see the controversial play My Name is Rachel Corrie at Minetta Lane Theatre, the audience was bombarded with pamphlets. One called Corrie a terrorist supporter and murderer. Another described her as a nonviolent activist.
The uncontested facts are these: in March of 2003, Corrie, a 23 year old from Olympia, Washington and a member of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, was killed by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer in an attempt to stop the demolition of the house she was staying at in Gaza. Both sides immediately seized on her death. Depending on who you asked, Corrie was either a remarkably brave young woman, willing to stand up for what she believed in, or a naïve tool who was tragically exploited by the very people she had come to help.
Not surprisingly, many of the circumstances of Corrie’s death are still in dispute. The ISM contends that the reason for the house-razing was preemptive collective punishment, a common practice in Gaza, and says that Corrie stood in front of the bulldozer for about 20 seconds (when it was 40 meters away) and that as the bulldozer approached her, she climbed onto the mound of earth that was being created and for a few seconds stood with the top half of her body above the blade. She then lost her footing and was pulled under the bulldozer.
The IDF, however, says Corrie didn’t try to stare down the bulldozer, but rather hurled herself in front of it. They also point to the small amount of visibility that the IDF'S armored bulldozers allow, citing the fact that operators are usually directed by another soldier on the ground. This didn’t happen on the day of her death because of the supposed threat of sniper fire. Furthermore, the IDF argues, it was not trying to level a house but to destroy a tunnel that it concealed, one of many that have been constructed from the nearby Egyptian border for the purpose of smuggling arms into Gaza.
Others have suggested that Corrie herself could have been involved in supplying terrorists with weapons, and may knowingly have been trying to stop the destruction of these tunnels. But while tunnels have been discovered in the past, the IDF has not reported any that have been found since Corrie's death. In fact, the family whose house she was protecting have never been accused or charged with any crime by the Israeli government. Nevertheless, the debate rages on, in Internet forums and elsewhere. In Mondo Weiss, a liberal blog on the New York Observer Web site, one disapproving commenter recently went so far as to say, “the terrorist bitch got what she deserved.”
The International Solidarity Movement has since been effectively kicked out of Gaza and has moved its primary operations to the West Bank. Formed in 2001 by Ghasson Andoni (a Palestinian) and Neta Golan (an Israeli), it has drawn much criticism for its extreme version of non-violence which members call “direct action.” This includes standing in front of tanks and bulldozers, deliberately and obviously breaking curfew, accompanying Palestinians through checkpoints, taking down Israeli roadblocks, confronting Israeli soldiers and trying to stop the construction of the barrier along the West Bank.
Members maintain that they are a nonviolent group but express support for suicide bombings, so long as they are targeting soldiers or settlers in Gaza or the West Bank and not citizens of Israel proper. The leaders cite India and the civil rights movement in America as proof that violent and nonviolent struggles need to work concurrently.
A one-woman play about Corrie’s life, culled from her emails and diary entries, opened to glowing reviews in London in April 2005 at the Royal Court Theatre. Early this year, the New York Theater Workshop, a respected SoHo institution, announced plans to present the same production here. However, it was abruptly and indefinitely postponed six weeks before opening night. The theater’s artistic director, James Nicola, cited the election of Hamas to parliament and the coma of Ariel Sharon as reasons why the situation in Israel had become too volatile to show the work. Many speculated that members of the Board of Trustees and other donors demanded the play be cancelled, although Nicola denies this.
“We want the voice heard by the New York audience, not the ancillary events that can pollute that voice," Lynn Moffet, managing director of the New York Theatre Workshop, told the radio show 'Democracy Now,' by way of explanation.
Audiences could feel the controversy, both political and dramaturgical, even six weeks into the play’s run at the Minetta Lane Theater, which agreed to put on the production after NYTW dropped it. The night I attended, seven people walked out before the performance had ended. But it seemed that while the politics of the play made many uncomfortable, the play itself was well received.
Corrie is portrayed brilliantly by Bree Elrod, who manages to capture the balance between her naive utopianism and fiery grit while maintaining the fragility of a 23-year-old American who throws herself into the midst of the region’s fierce violence. The best part of the performance comes when we see just how American Corrie is. The first third of the play takes place as she is packing up her things in her bedroom before she leaves for Gaza, but barely any of the monologue has to do with her fear or apprehension. Instead we get a picture of a college student who is worried about her ex-boyfriend, her family and how she can pull her life together. She wants to go to Gaza to meet people who are actually affected by US-supported military policy, as if it will just be a way of making her local activism more effective. In a poignant display of how radically her life is going to change, Corrie lists participating in a parade of people dressed up as doves as one of her primary activist achievements.
The second half of the play is far darker and more political, with Corrie's gentle pacifism devolving into rants that become quite radical by the end of the performance. The nature-loving peacenik is soon transformed into a war-weary revolutionary, defending suicide bombings as part of a “just arms struggle.”
This structure seams to be a metaphor for the larger political message of My Name is Rachel Corrie. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a phrase that, Corrie tells her mother, “implies it is a balanced struggle instead of largely unarmed people fighting against the fourth largest military in the world”) is obviously at the play’s forefront, its deeper message is about class guilt and American culture. The most powerful aspects of Rachel’s words are not about the plight of the Palestinian people, but the way in which Americans are sheltered and ignorant of other places in the world, and the degree to which our own policies have helped make violence inescapable.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
By Lee Varian