In a one-person show, the most important question is not where to start the story but why to tell it. The actor needs a compelling reason, beyond vanity, to step from the wings onto the stage. There has to be both need and news; there rarely is. One exception is the riveting “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” (at the Minetta Lane, under the deft direction of Alan Rickman, who also co-edited the play, with the journalist Katharine Viner). “Rachel Corrie” is a ventriloquist’s act in which the bright, fine-boned Megan Dodds, who radiates a sense of both privilege and pluck, resuscitates from diary entries and e-mails the voice and being of the American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who died at the age of twenty-three. For most of her life, Corrie was haunted by the suffering in the world. In the play, which is a kind of ghost story, she returns to haunt us.
On March 16, 2003, Corrie, wearing a bright-orange jacket and holding a bullhorn, tried to shield the home of a Palestinian civilian in a refugee camp in the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip, one of three thousand homes that were demolished by Israeli forces between 2001 and 2003. She was crushed to death by an Israeli Caterpillar. In the subsequent furor, Corrie was labelled both a traitor and a martyr. (The New York Theatre Workshop, which was originally supposed to produce the play, dropped it, because of Corrie’s “controversial” views.) She was neither. By the evidence of her own words—and this takes nothing away from the poetic power of her testimony or the tragedy of her death—she was, it seems, an ascetic hysteric. “I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop,” Corrie e-mailed her mother, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my co-workers. But I also want this to stop.”
During the play, we see an eerie video clip of Corrie at age ten, speaking eloquently and precociously at her school’s fifth-grade press conference on world hunger. “My dream is to save the forty thousand people who die each day,” she says. Listening to her proclamations as a girl—“We have got to understand that they dream our dreams and we dream theirs”—one gets the sense that the child is an understudy for an adult. She is clearly porous, a vessel for the projections of others. In the texts from which the play is drawn, Corrie, who grew up, the youngest of three children, in the Arcadian liberal sanctuary of Olympia, Washington, claims to owe a great deal to her mother. “You gave me a potential,” she writes, adding, “You made me.” Corrie also seems to have absorbed her mother’s political narrative. She describes a trip to a Seattle bookstore, where her mother buys her some books, including one on delinquency. “I’m sure she was hoping I’d become a bank robber,” Corrie says. “My mother would never admit it, but she wanted me exactly how I turned out—scattered and deviant and too loud.” Most of the e-mails cited here are addressed to Corrie’s mother, whom Corrie describes as “very involved . . . overly involved sometimes,” and whom she perceives, variously, as a co-conspirator (“Maybe you should try to get Dad to quit his neo-liberal job”) and a colossus. “Sometimes my mother is up there, bobbing in the sky like Macy’s Parade balloons,” she says. “So big she looms over everything.”
The set at the Minetta Lane is divided between Corrie’s cluttered, red-walled American bedroom and the bullet-pocked stucco walls of the Palestinian refugee encampment where she died. Corrie’s journey is from one side of the stage to the other, a shift from surreal optimism to surreal devastation. “I’m building the world myself,” she says. From the first words she delivers—addressing her ceiling from beneath the covers on her bed—she is clearly self-dramatizing. She is “the bad other girl” who reads fashion magazines and makes a mess of her room, painting it the color of “carnage.” She’s the renegade who chooses Evergreen State College over the more prestigious academic path of her siblings, “my Economics-major-high-achiever-khaki-and-h
The play shrewdly does not show Corrie dying; it shows her living, in all her funny, lively, melancholy, and manipulative immediacy. She ponders the misery of the Israeli checkpoints, the nihilism of the humiliated Palestinian population, which has turned suicide bombing into a heroic destiny. She meditates on her own fears and her own death. “If my whole life is going to amount to one shrug and a shake of the head,” she says, “who cares if it comes in eighty years or at eight p.m.” With a kind of tragic symmetry, the catastrophe that Corrie was perhaps courting comes to her in a dream, almost exactly as it eventually happened. “Had a dream about falling, falling to my death off of something dusty and smooth and crumbling like cliffs in Utah, but I kept holding on,” she says. Corrie, it seems to me, is a far more complex character than this play intends her to be, which makes the evening all the more fascinating. Her words bear witness to the deracinating madness of war, a hysteria that infects not only those doing the fighting but also those ambitious to do the saving.
“I wonder how it would be for them to arrive in my world,” Corrie says of the refugees she encounters. “I wonder if you can forgive the world for all the years spent existing—just existing—in resistance to the constant attempt to erase you from your home.” The internal war between enslavement and empowerment, between pauperization and privilege, is acted out in the African-American actor and playwright Daniel Beaty’s one-man extravaganza “Emergence-See” (at the Public, under the direction of Kenny Leon). On four raspberry-colored platforms, cantilevered across the stage like lily pads, Beaty leaps from character to character, as he sings, recites, acts, and declaims about the divisions between his personal history and his race’s impoverishment. In a story line as preposterous as it is portentous—it includes the sighting of a slave ship near the Statue of Liberty, with the narrator’s demented father at the helm, and an attempt to rescue him on the day of a poetry slam—Beaty shows off his histrionic skills. Although he sails mightily close to cliché at crucial moments—“I’m in a state of emergence-see,” he orates. “And as I emerge I see our bones know an ancient divinity; / and the bones, the bones, the bones they breathe”—the intelligence of what he has to say is never in doubt. Unfortunately, however, self-involvement and self-congratulation on this scale are never an entirely pretty sight, or really a dramatic one. “Emergence-See,” as its title suggests, is more about speechifying than about edifying.