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Rachel Corrie: Too Hot for New York

Why has a New York theater company backed off from producing a celebrated play about the moral awakening of a young American activist?
 
 
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The slim book that was suddenly the most controversial work in the West in early March was not easy to find in the United States. Amazon said it wasn't available till April. The Strand bookstore didn't have it either. You could order it on Amazon-UK, but it would be a week getting here. I finally found an author in Michigan who kindly photocopied the British book and overnighted it to me; but to be on the safe side, I visited an activist's apartment on Eighth Avenue on the promise that I could take her much-in-demand copy to the lobby for half an hour. In the elevator, I flipped it open to a random passage:

I can't cool boiling waters in Russia. I can't be Picasso. I can't be Jesus. I can't save the planet single-handedly. I can wash dishes.

The book is the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Composed from the journal entries and e-mails of the 23-year-old from Washington State who was crushed to death in Gaza three years ago under a bulldozer operated by the Israeli army, the play had two successful runs in London last year and then became a cause celebre after a progressive New York theater company decided to postpone its American premiere indefinitely out of concern for the sensitivities of (unnamed) Jewish groups unsettled by Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections.

When the English producers denounced the decision by the New York Theatre Workshop as "censorship" and withdrew the show, even the mainstream media could not ignore the implications. Why is it that the eloquent words of an American radical could not be heard in this country -- not, that is, without what the Workshop had called "contextualizing," framing the play with political discussions, maybe even mounting a companion piece that would somehow "mollify" the Jewish community?

"The impact of this decision is enormous -- it is bigger than Rachel and bigger than this play," Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother, said. "There was something about this play that made them feel so vulnerable. I saw in the Workshop's schedule a lesbian play. Will they use the same approach? Will they go to the segment of the community that would ardently oppose that?"

In this way, Corrie's words appear to have had more impact than her death. The House bill calling for a U.S. investigation of her killing died in committee, with only seventy-eight votes and little media attention. But the naked admission by a left-leaning cultural outlet that it would subordinate its own artistic judgment to pro-Israel views has served as a smoking gun for those who have tried to press the discussion in this country of Palestinian human rights.

Indeed, the admission was so shocking and embarrassing that the Workshop quickly tried to hedge and retreat from its statements. But the damage was done; people were asking questions that had been consigned to the fringe: How can the West condemn the Islamic world for not accepting Muhammad cartoons when a Western writer who speaks out on behalf of Palestinians is silenced? And why is it that Europe and Israel itself have a healthier debate over Palestinian human rights than we can have here?

The death of a writer

When she died on March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie had been in the Middle East for fifty days as a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group recruiting Westerners to serve as "human shields" against Israeli aggression -- including the policy of bulldozing Palestinian houses to create a wider no man's land between Egypt and then-occupied Gaza. Corrie was crushed to death when she stood in front of a bulldozer that was proceeding toward a Palestinian pharmacist's house. By witnesses' accounts, Corrie, wearing a bright orange vest, was clearly visible to the bulldozer's driver. An Israeli army investigation held no one accountable.

Corrie's horrifying death was a landmark event: It linked Palestinian suffering to the American progressive movement. And it was immediately politicized. Pro-Israel voices sought to smear Corrie as a servant of terrorists. They said that the Israeli army was merely trying to block tunnels through which weapons were brought from Egypt into the occupied territories -- thereby denying that Corrie had died as the result of indiscriminate destruction. Hateful e-mails were everywhere. "Rachel Corrie won't get 72 virgins but she got what she wanted," said one.

Few knew that Corrie had been a dedicated writer. "I decided to be an artist and a writer," she had written in a journal, describing her awakening, "and I didn't give a shit if I was mediocre and I didn't give a shit if I starved to death and I didn't give a shit if my whole damn high school turned and pointed and laughed in my face."

Corrie's family felt it most urgent to get her words out to the world. The family posted several of her last e-mails on the ISM website (and they were printed in full by the London Guardian). These pieces were electrifying. They revealed a passionate and poetical woman who had long been attracted to idealistic causes and had put aside her work with the mentally ill and environmental causes in the Pacific Northwest to take up a pressing concern, Palestinian human rights. Thousands responded to the Corries, including a representative of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London, who asked if the theater could use Rachel's words in a production -- and, oh, are there more writings? Cindy Corrie could do little more than sit and drink tea. She had family tell the Royal Court, Give us time.

It was another year before Sarah Corrie dragged out the tubs in which her sister had stored her belongings and typed passages from journals and letters going back to high school. In November 2004 the Corries sent 184 pages to the Royal Court.

It had been the intention of the two collaborators, Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, a Guardian editor, to flesh out Rachel Corrie's writings with others' words. The pages instantly changed their minds. "We thought, She's done it on her own. Rachel's voice is the only voice you had to hear," Viner says. The Corrie family, which holds the rights to the words, readily agreed. Rachel Corrie was the playwright. Any royalties would go to the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice. The London "co-editors" then set to work winnowing the material, working with a slender blond actress, Megan Dodds, who resembles Corrie.

A year ago the play was staged as a one-woman show in a 100-seat theater at the Royal Court. The piece was critically celebrated, and the four-week run sold out. Young people especially were drawn to the show.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie -- the title comes from a declaration in Corrie's journal -- is two things: the self-portrait of a sensitive woman struggling to find her purpose, and a polemic on the horrors of Israeli occupation.

The work is marked by Plath-like talk about boys -- "Eventually I convinced Colin to quit drowning out my life" -- and rilling passages about her growing understanding of commitment: "I knew a few years ago what the unbearable lightness of being was, before I read the book. The lightness between life and death, there are no dimensions at all…. It's just a shrug, the difference between Hitler and my mother, the difference between Whitney Houston and a Russian mother watching her son fall through the sidewalk and boil to death…. And I knew back then that the shrug would happen at the end of my life -- I knew. And I thought, so who cares?… Now I know, who cares…if I die at 11.15 p.m. or at 97 years -- And I know it's me. That's my job…" As the work grinds toward death, Corrie's moral vision of the Mideast becomes uppermost. "What we are paying for here is truly evil…. This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into when you decided to have me."

'Mollifying' the opposition

The show returned last fall to a larger theater at the Royal Court, and sold out again. Most viewers tended to walk off afterward in stunned silence, but some nights the theater became a forum for discussions. Rickman or Viner or Dodds came out to talk about how the show had come about.

The Royal Court got bids from around the world, including a theater in Israel, seeking to stage the production. But the priority was to bring the show to "Rachel's homeland," as Elyse Dodgson, the theater's international director, says. At bottom, Corrie's story feels very American. It is filled with references that surely escaped its English audience -- working at Mount Rainier, swimming naked in Puget Sound, drinking Mountain Dew, driving I-5 to California.

The New York Theatre Workshop agreed to stage the show in March 2006. But by January the Royal Court began to sense apprehension on the Workshop's part. "I went to New York to meet them because I didn't feel comfortable about what they were saying," Dodgson says.

The Workshop was evidently spooked. Its artistic director, James Nicola, spoke of having discussions after every performance to "contextualize" the play, of hiring a consultant who had worked with Salman Rushdie to lead these discussions and of hiring Emily Mann, the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, to prepare a companion piece of testimonies that would include Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism.

"We've had some brilliant discussions, we told them, but the play speaks for itself," Dodgson says. "It is expensive and unnecessary to have that after every single performance. Of course we knew some of the hideous things that were said about Rachel. We took no notice of them. The controversy died when people saw that this was a play about a young woman, an idealist."

Dodgson was further upset when a Workshop marketing staffer, whom she won't name, used the word "mollifying." "It was a very awkward conversation. He said, 'I can't find the right word, but "mollifying" the Jewish community.' It shocked me."

Corrie's connection to the International Solidarity Movement was politically loaded. The ISM is committed to nonviolence, but it works with a broad range of organizations, from Israeli peace activists to Palestinian groups that have supported suicide bombings, which has been seized on by those who want it to get lost.

At the heart of the disagreement was an insistence by supporters of Israel that Corrie's killing be presented in the context of Palestinian terror. And that specifically, the policy of destroying Palestinian homes in Gaza be shown to be aimed at those tunnels -- even though the pharmacist's house Corrie was shielding was hundreds of yards from the border and had nothing to do with tunnels. One person close to NYTW, who refused to go on the record, elaborates: "The fact that the Israelis and such were trying to bulldoze these houses was not due to the fact that they were just against the Palestinians, but the underground tunnels, ways to get explosives to this community. By not mentioning it, the play was not as evenhanded as it claims to be." Another anonymous NYTW source said that staffers became worried after reading a fall 2003 Mother Jones profile of Corrie, a much disputed piece that relied heavily on right-wing sources to paint her as a reckless naif.

Just whom was the Workshop consulting in its deliberations? It has steadfastly refused to say. In the New York Observer, Nicola mentioned "Jewish friends." Dodgson says that in discussions with the Royal Court, Workshop staffers brought up the Anti-Defamation League and the mayor's office as entities they were concerned about. (Abe Foxman of the ADL visited London in 2005 and denounced the play in the New York Sun as offensive to Jewish "sensitivities.") By one account, the fatal blow was dealt when the global PR firm Ruder Finn (which has an office in Israel) said it couldn't represent the play.

In its latest statement, the Workshop says it consulted many community voices, not only Jews. These did not include Arab-Americans. Najla Said, the artistic director of Nibras, an Arab-American theater in New York, says, "We're not even 'other' enough to be 'other.' We're not the political issue that anyone thinks is worth talking about."

The run had been scheduled for March 22-May 14. Tickets were listed on Telecharge in February. But the Workshop had not announced the production. According to the Royal Court, Nicola at last told them he wanted to postpone the play at least six months or a year to allow the political climate to settle down and to better prepare the production. The Royal Court took this as a cancellation. The news broke on February 28 in the Guardian and the New York Times.

The Times article was shocking. It said the Workshop had "delayed" a production it had never announced, and reported that Nicola had been "polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings." Nicola was quoted saying that Hamas's victory had made the Jewish community "very defensive and very edgy…and that seemed reasonable to me."

The Red Sea parted. Or anyway the Atlantic Ocean. The English playwright Caryl Churchill, who has worked with both theaters, condemned the decision. Vanessa Redgrave wrote a letter urging the Royal Court to sue the Workshop. At first, the New York theater community was quiet.

Enter the blogosphere, stage left. Three or four outraged theater bloggers began peppering the Workshop's community with questions. Whom did the Workshop talk to? Why aren't theater people up in arms? Garrett Eisler, the blogger Playgoer, likened the decision to one by the Manhattan Theater Club to cancel its 1998 production of Corpus Christi, a play imagining Christ as a gay man -- a decision that was reversed after leading voices, including the Times editorial page, denounced the action.

The playwright Jason Grote circulated a petition calling on the Workshop to reverse itself. Signers included Philip Munger, a composer whose cantata dedicated to Corrie, The Skies Are Weeping, also had experienced politically motivated cancellations. The young playwright Christopher Shinn spoke out early and forcefully, saying the postponement amounted to censorship. "No one with a name was saying anything," says Eisler. "And Chris Shinn is not that big a name, but he is a practicing theater artist whose name gets in the New York Times."

A 'ghastly' situation

By the time I visited the Workshop, a week into the controversy, it was a wounded institution. Linda Chapman, the associate artistic director, who had signed Grote's petition, said she couldn't talk to me, because of the "quicksand" that any statement had become. The Workshop had posted and then removed from its website a clumsy statement aimed at explaining itself. Playgoer was demanding that the opponents of the play come forward and drumming for a declaration from Tony Kushner, who has staged plays at the Workshop, posting his photo as if he were some war criminal.

In an interview with The Nation, Kushner said that he was quiet because of his exhaustion over similar arguments surrounding the film Munich, on which he was a screenwriter, and because he kept hoping the decision would be made right. He said Nicola is a great figure in American theater: "His is one of the one or two most important theaters in this area -- politically engaged, unapologetic, unafraid and formally experimental." Never having gotten a clear answer about why Nicola put off the play, Kushner ascribes it to panic: Nicola didn't know what he was getting into, and only later became aware of how much opposition there was to Corrie, how much confusion the right has created around the facts. Nicola felt he was taking on "a really big, scary brawl and not a play." Still, Kushner said, the theater's decision created a "ghastly" situation. "Censoring a play because it addresses Palestinian-Israeli issues is not in any way right," he said.

The Royal Court came out smelling like a rose. It triumphantly announced that it was moving the Megan Dodds show to the West End, the London equivalent of Broadway, and that it couldn't come to New York till next fall.

The Grote petitioners (519 and counting) want that to happen at the Workshop, which itself was reaching out with another statement on the matter, released on the eve of the anniversary of Corrie's death. "I can only say we were trying to do whatever we could to help Rachel's voice be heard," Nicola said. The cut may be too deep for such ointment. As George Hunka, author of the theater blog Superfluities, says, "This is far too important an issue for everyone to paper it over again, with everyone shaking hands for a New York Times photographer. It's an extraordinarily rare picture of the ways that New York cultural institutions make their decisions about what to produce."

Hunka doesn't use the J-word. Jen Marlowe does. A Jewish activist with Rachelswords.org (which is staging a reading of Corrie's words on March 22 with the Corrie parents present), she says, "I don't want to say the Jewish community is monolithic. It isn't. But among many American Jews who are very progressive and fight deeply for many social justice issues, there's a knee-jerk reflexive reaction that happens around issues related to Israel."

Questions about pressure from Jewish leaders morph quickly into questions about funding. Ellen Stewart, the legendary director of the theatrical group La MaMa E.T.C., which is across East 4th Street from the Workshop, speculates that the trouble began with its "very affluent" board. Rachel's father, Craig Corrie, echoes her. "Do an investigation, follow the money." I called six board members and got no response. (About a third appear to be Jewish, as am I.) This is of course a charged issue. The writer Alisa Solomon, who was appalled by the postponement, nonetheless warns, "There's something a little too familiar about the image of Jews pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes."

Perhaps. But Nicola's statement about a back channel to Jewish leaders suggests the presence of a cultural lobby that parallels the vaunted pro-Israel lobby in think tanks and Congress. I doubt we will find out whether the Workshop's decision was "internally generated," as Kushner contends, or more orchestrated, as I suspect. What the episode has demonstrated is a climate of fear. Not of physical harm, but of loss of opportunities. "The silence results from fear and intimidation," says Cindy Corrie. "I don't see what else. And it harms not only Palestinians. I believe, from the bottom of my heart, it harms Israelis and it harms us."

Kushner agrees. Having spent five months defending Munich, he says the fear has two sources: "There is a very, very highly organized attack machinery that will come after you if you express any kind of dissent about Israel's policies, and it's a very unpleasant experience to be in the cross hairs. These aren't hayseeds from Kansas screaming about gays burning in hell; they're newspaper columnists who are taken seriously." These attackers impose a kind of literacy test: Before you can cast a moral vote on Palestinian rights, you must be able to recite a million wonky facts, such as what percentage of the territories were outside the Green Line in 1949. Then there is the self-generated fear of lending support to anti-Semites or those who would destroy Israel. All in all, says Kushner, it can leave someone "overwhelmed and in despair -- you feel like you should just say nothing."

Who will tell Americans the Middle East story? For generations that story has been one of Israelis as victims, and it has been crucial to Israeli policy inasmuch as Israel has been able to defy its neighbors' opinions by relying on a highly sympathetic superpower. Israel's supporters have always feared that if Americans started to conduct the same frank discussion of issues that takes place in Tel Aviv, we might become more evenhanded in our approach to the Middle East. That pressure is what has stifled a play that portrays the Palestinians as victims (and thrown a blanket over a movie, Munich, that portrays both sides as victims). I've never written this sort of thing before. How moving that we have been granted that freedom by a 23-year-old woman with literary gifts who was not given time to unpack them.

Philip Weiss is the author of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps .