August 23, 2011
‘Rachel Corrie’ on stage: agitprop or art?
“The American Jewish community has a problem keeping silent,” says scholar Michael Berenbaum, and he ascribes the “problem” to guilt over our collective failure to speak up during the Holocaust.
In a very different time and on a vastly different scale, the option of silence versus public protest faces Los Angeles Jews in advance of the opening of a play many view as anti-Israel propaganda.
The one-woman play, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” will open Sept. 1 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor venue in Topanga Canyon. Although it is hardly a prominent theatrical event for a cultural mecca like Los Angeles, its focus on a controversial historical figure from Israel’s recent history raises questions of artistic freedom and historical balance.
Rachel Corrie, who grew up in a liberal, non-Jewish family in Olympia, Wash., traveled during the Second Intifada to the Gaza Strip as part of an activist movement to “shield” Palestinian inhabitants from the Israeli army.
She was killed March 16, 2003, at age 23, while confronting an army bulldozer assigned to demolish a house believed to harbor hostile militants. Some allege the bulldozer driver killed Corrie on purpose because she would not move out of the way. Others say the driver did not see her and ran over her accidentally.
The dramatic circumstances of this young American woman’s death in the midst of a widely covered conflict quickly turned the incident into an international cause célèbre.
Corrie, a compulsive writer, left behind a huge cache of diary entries and e-mail letters, which two Londoners, actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner, have edited into a 70-minute play.
“My Name Is Rachel Corrie” opened in London in 2005 to full houses and glowing reviews. A planned New York premiere in early 2006, at the nonprofit New York Theatre Workshop, met a different fate, however.
The timing of the New York opening was inauspicious. It was a moment when the always-heated emotions surrounding the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been intensified by Hamas’ election victory in Gaza, a group listed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. The play’s intended opening also coincided with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke, which left the Israeli leader in a coma.
So, before opening the play, James Nicola, artistic director of the New York theater, decided to poll local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work, according to a New York Times report.
Nicola concluded that the announced play “has made this community very defensive and very edgy … and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the opening indefinitely.”
Nevertheless, the play opened later that year at a commercial theater in Greenwich Village, and that production left New York Times critic Clive Davis cold.
“An element of unvarnished propaganda comes to the fore … with no attempt to set the violence in context,” Davis wrote. “We are left with the impression of unarmed civilians being crushed by faceless militarists.”
In a rebuttal, Viner, the play’s co-editor, defended her work as “a piece of art, not a piece of agitprop.”
Various productions of the play have since been staged in Seattle, Chicago, Australia and Ireland.
Perhaps with the unhappy New York experience in mind, the Theatricum Botanicum’s board decided to do some advance outreach to the local Jewish community, with veteran character actor Alan Blumenfeld, a longtime board member, volunteering to make the contacts.
In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Blumenfeld noted that, so far, attention has focused on Corrie’s dramatic end, rather than on her life. In assessing the play, he said, “I think it is important to figure out who she was and what she tried to do — separate from her death.”
In one of her diary entries, the then-21-year-old Corrie describes herself as “scattered, deviant and too loud.” Susan Angelo, who directs actress Samara Frame in the upcoming production, sees Corrie as a rather naïve young woman who knew little about the Middle East conflict and could have gone to any global hot spot in her search “to make her life meaningful.”
Co-editor Viner, in an epilogue to the play’s script, sums up Corrie as “messy, skinny, Dali-loving, list-making, chain-smoking, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar.”
A reading of the play shows Corrie portrayed as an intelligent, idealistic, super-imaginative and introspective teenager and young woman, who strove, somewhat self-consciously, to appear unconventional.
In trying to evaluate the Jewish community’s mood, Blumenfeld spoke with representatives of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israel-advocacy group StandWithUs.
Blumenfeld said he found the representatives of all three groups friendly and forthcoming. As a result of the discussions, representatives from the community will provide audiences with factual written material and participate in “audience talk-back” sessions following all four performances of the play.
In an interview, Patsy Ostroy, founding president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said she had not seen the play but she anticipated “a negative reaction in the Jewish community,” while at the same time fully defending the play’s right to be heard and seen.
Catherine Schneider, Federation’s senior vice president of community engagement, said she had expressed her deep concern about the possible impact of the “play’s misinformation” on audiences, but also explored with Blumenfeld possible future stagings of other works at Theatricum Botanicum, perhaps by young Israeli authors.
Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a group that on its Web site describes its mission as fighting the “delegitimization of Israel,” expressed concern about the play’s approach: “I can fully understand that Rachel’s parents are heartbroken … but the play itself consists of one-sided anti-Israel propaganda.”
StandWithUs does not advocate a boycott of the play, she said, but it will distribute to audiences a leaflet featuring pictures of eight Israeli women, all also named Rachel, who have been killed in terrorist attacks.
Although the Simon Wiesenthal Center was not part of Blumenfeld’s advance discussions, its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said that based on Israel’s record and government investigation of the case, he is convinced Corrie’s death was accidental.
“In a free country, the producers of the play have every right to put it on,” Hier said, “but to any friend of Israel, I would say, ‘Don’t see it.’ ”
Veteran peace and civil-rights activist Gerald Bubis also emphasized the right of any play to present its message, nevertheless predicting that “the more Jews attack the play, the more publicity it will get.
“My advice about the play is leave it alone, leave it alone,” Bubis said. “If it’s good, it’ll survive; if it’s bad, it won’t. In either case, nothing will happen to the Jews.”
Two telling evaluations came from theatrical producers who have had their own struggles with controversial plays.
Howard Teichman, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre, recalled that two years ago he wanted to put on “Behind the Gates” by Wendy Graf, much of it set in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter.
Though Teichman considered the play “brilliant,” when he presented the project to his board, a majority turned it down, concerned that the contents would offend religious sensibilities. “I still think one of the theater’s missions is to present all points of view,” he said.
Gordon Davidson, who served for nearly four decades as artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, staged “The Devils” by John Whiting as his very first production. Among other topics, the play dealt with religious hysteria and sexual repression among 17th century nuns and priests, and the reaction by the Catholic Church and powerful politicians almost aborted Davidson’s career at its start.
“I realize that a given play may cause anger and hurt, but if I chose it on its merits, I have to take the responsibility,” Davidson said. “And what better exercise in democracy can there be?”
So far, the Jewish community, or that segment aware of the Rachel Corrie play, is generally taking its upcoming performance with equanimity.
Blumenfeld said that the theater sent out notices of the play’s schedule to its mailing list of 4,000, and just seven came back with e-mailed comments.
“Three said, ‘I’m excited and will attend,’ ” Blumenfeld said. “Two responded with, ‘I am concerned about the play. Can we discuss this?’ And two more messaged, ‘How dare you put this on? I’ll never set foot in your theater again.’ ”
Performances of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” are on successive Thursday evenings, Sept. 1, 8, 15 and 22, at the Theatricum Botanicum’s S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion, located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway. For tickets ($12 each) and information, phone (310) 455-3723, or visit www.theatricum.com.