New York stage artists are rushing in to fill the void left by the aborted U.S. debut of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. But what’s lost in the controversy regarding the halted New York Theater Workshop production is the humanity of the play itself, as well as the closeness of the local theater community. “This has been like a family event,” says actress Kathleen Chalfant, “and we’re trying to see what’s going on in our family.”
The one-woman show tells the story of a 23-year-old activist from Olympia, Washington, who traveled to Gaza in early 2003. Less than two months later, she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer as she tried to block its path toward a Palestinian home. Edited by actor Alan Rickman and Guardian journalist Katharine Viner, the single act is made up of Corrie’s journal entries and e-mail correspondence. The first half poetically details her college life (run-ins with an ex-boyfriend, second thoughts about painting her ceiling red). In the second half, the destruction she witnesses in Gaza as an international observer of potential human rights violations of Palestinians challenges her fundamental beliefs about human nature. “It hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be,” she writes. “It is my own selfishness and will to optimism that wants to believe that even people with a great deal of privilege don’t just idly sit by and watch.”
A single line of text announces her death, followed by a video of a 10-year-old Corrie delivering a speech at a student conference. “I am here for other children. I am here because I care,” she states. “My dream is to stop hunger by the year 2000.”
After two sold-out runs at London’s Royal Court, the play was moving toward a March 22 opening at NYTW when its artistic director, James C. Nicola, pulled the plug in late February. All aspects of how far along the production agreement was, and whether NYTW’s decision constituted a delay until next season, an indefinite postponement, a cancellation, or as some contend, an act of censorship, are in dispute by both companies. The Royal Court owns the rights to the play and ultimately determines where it will have its U.S. debut.
According to The New York Times, Nicola withdrew the production after “polling local Jewish religious and community leaders,” an idea that has provoked great dismay from Jews and non-Jews alike who want to see the play produced as a work of art. “When NYTW does a play, the Workshop speaks with many members of the community before producing,” says NYTW publicist Richard Kornberg, adding that this process is more routine than has been suggested, and that no actual polling took place. The theater stands by its assertion that what it wanted, in fact, was merely more time to do justice to the playwrights’ voice.
An open letter posted on onlinepetition.com “in the spirit of friendship and collegiality” asks Nicola to make good on his commitment to the play. It garnered more than 350 signatures in three days— including those of Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler. “Dear Jim, my old friend,” writes a signatory, “I would welcome talking to you about this.”
In the meantime, theater artists and human rights activists are planning events to promote an inclusive dialogue around Corrie’s words and the questions raised by the recent controversy. A schedule, available at villagevoice.com/theater, should comfort those who worry that the New York theater community would ever sit idly by anything.
Thursday, March 16
Global readings from Brooklyn to Basra of the activist’s writings, modeled on The Lysistrata Project. For information , visit rachelswords.org.
‘Who’s Afraid of Rachel Corrie? An Evening of Rachel’s Words’
Thursday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m.
Lafayette Presbyterian Church
85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn
Hosted by Irondale Ensemble Project. Free. 718-488-9233, irondale.org, rachelswords.org
Wednesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m.
490 Riverside Drive
Maysoon Zayid, Kia Corthron, Malachy McCourt, Najla Said, Kathleen Chalfant, Betty Shamieh, Anthony Arnove, and others join together for an evening of readings, incorporating video from the March 16 worldwide event. $20 suggested donation (no one will be turned away), rachelswords.org, theriversidechurchny.org
‘Out of Silence: A Public Conversation on Writing, Access, Funding, Censorship, Silence, and the Arts’
Tuesday, April 11, at 7 p.m.
424 West 44th Street
Moderated by playwright Caridad Svich. Panelists include Jonathan Kalb, Marcy Arlin, Randy Gener of American Theater, Glyn O’ Malley (author of Paradise), Thaddeus Phillips, and Saviana Stanescu. Free. 212-757-6960
Monday, April 17, at 7 p.m.
The Culture Project
45 Bleecker Street
A town-hall meeting with readings, moderated by playwrights Jason Grote and Caridad Svich. Free. 212-253-9983, cultureproject.org