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Philip Weiss on the Rachel Corrie Play--The Nation magazine 4-3-06

*Too Hot for New York*

by PHILIP WEISS

[from the April 3, 2006 issue]

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 US 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?

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."

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/."

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.n



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