I attended a play last night that is being performed this weekend at EMU. My Name is Rachel Corrie is extraordinary. It is also the perfect production for this weekend when over 100 students from around the world are on campus for the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.
On March 16, 2003, a 23-year old woman from Olympia, Washington was killed in Gaza when a bulldozer, operated by the Israeli Defense Force intent on demolishing a house in Rafah, crushed her to death as she stood between the home and the bulldozer. Rachel Corrie was in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles. Before this weekend I’d never heard of her.
Actor Alan Rickman decided to create a play to tell Rachel’s story. He collaborated with Guardian editor Katharine Viner. They planned to hire a writer to incorporate Rachel’s journal writings and powerful e-mails into the story of her life. Ultimately, they hired no one. They simply edited Rachel’s own words into the entire play.
My Name is Rachel Corrie has been controversial. After her death pro-Israeli voices portrayed her as a tool of terrorists. Pro-Palestinians saw her as a martyr and a hero.
The play was a huge hit in London. It has played all over the world, including in Israel, but proved too hot for New York. It was scheduled to open off-Broadway at at the New York Theatre Workshop but was canceled due to “the current political climate.” What is troubling and difficult to understand is that in the country that basically invented, and staunchly defends, freedom of speech, the words of a 23-year old non-violent peace-worker would be squelched.
After the performance last night my friend Belinda asked me if I remember having that “fire in the belly” when I was Rachel’s age. For many people there is a magical time in life when you become deeply passionate about having a positive impact on the world. Belinda and I both remember it. She also said she felt a little reckless at that point in her life. With all her deep passion, her belief in justice and peace, Rachel Corrie took action that ended her life. Some would surely portray her as reckless. In Ms. Viner’s words, she and Rickman “tried to do justice to the whole of Rachel: neither saint nor traitor, both serious and funny, messy and talented, devastatingly prescient and human and whole.”
They’ve succeeded on all counts. I recommend this play highly. It will also take some effort on your part. The theaters willing to present My Name is Rachel Corrie are few; mostly small theaters and colleges. Ask about it. Recommend it. You can also buy the script.
Read more about Rachel here, and about the foundation that was established to continue the kind of work she began and hoped to accomplish here.
My Name is Rachel Corrie will make you think and it will stay with you.
I admire the attempt by Viner and Rickman to portray Corrie and her death as complex. One of the vexing issues, for instance, in judging the meaning of her life is that there was strong evidence that her death was accidental; at a minimum, it seems that her recklessness was inextricably intertwined with her passionate conviction and her willingness to stand up for what she believed.
It's probably worth noting, too, that the play's New York City debut was only delayed, not canceled. It opened for an off-Broadway run in 2006, only a few months after it was postponed.
It is indeed vexing, James. There are plenty of folks, including witnesses on the scene, who would strongly disagree that there is "strong evidence that her death was accidental." Both sides are passionate in their perspectives from what I've read.
And yes, the play did open in NYC in October 2006, seven months after being "indefinitely postponed" by the New York Theatre Workshop. It opened at Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village with a different producer.
What's amazing to me is that at least some theatre troupes remain concerned enough about opponents that they maintain strict secrecy regarding rehearsal location, don't even announce the performance until a couple weeks prior to opening, and limit advertising to word-of-mouth. The play simply shouldn't generate that level of concern on anyone's part.
There are plenty of folks, including witnesses on the scene, who would strongly disagree that there is “strong evidence that her death was accidental.”
There are also witnesses, including those on her side, who gave testimony indicating that her death was accidental.
It's true that there are people on both sides who are passionate in their beliefs, and I certainly don't know what happened. It was a messy situation and the truth is hard to discern.
I find it hard to believe, however, that anyone could look objectively at the evidence and not conclude that it includes strong evidence, including physical as well as testimonial evidence, for the case that her death was accidental. This doesn't mean there isn't evidence for the other side, as well, and it doesn't indicate where the weight of the evidence lies.
I prefer to think that the most important issue isn't whether or not a young Israeli conscript deliberately murdered Rachel Corrie, but that she chose to inject herself into risky situations for the cause she believed in, and that the actions of many people created a situation in which tragic, violent death, whether deliberate or accidental, had become highly likely.
It opened at Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village with a different producer.
I think it's worth noting that the play opened elsewhere, and with a different producer, because those who owned the rights to the play withdrew it from the New York Theatre Workshop, which insisted that it did intend to put the play on but wanted to provide context.
I don't think this makes either side look particularly principled, but if there's a clear-cut right and wrong there, I don't know what it is.
We agree on both your points, James. As with most things in life worth contemplating all the related issues in this story are complex, challenging, thought-provoking, and anything but clear-cut.
I'm surprised that what's being discussed in the comments so far is the continued debate about whether or not Rachel's death was accidental! Somehow the heart of the piece seems to lie in a deeper principle: what was happening to the people living in Gaza at the time and how a commitment to human rights drove Rachel Corrie to be there and, ultimately, to her death.
I remember this story well; I followed it in real time because it horrified me. As an American who has deep respect for the plight of ALL people, including Palestinians, I found the systemic destruction of their homes and lives by the Israeli Army to be worthy of international attention, as did Rachel.
But it is just one story…obviously the greater story of the Middle East, of the historic struggle between Israel and Palestine, is long, deep, complicated and not easily articulated one, particularly in America. Our relationship with Israel is so entrenched and political, it seems impossible to open our minds to an awareness of ANY human rights violations against the Palestinians without being branded as anti-semetic. I've gotten into battles with friends for even mentioning "there are many sides to this story." We're supposed to blindly accept only one side or be ostracized and insulted.
And yet I am not anti-semetic. Nor am I "pro" one side or the other. I am a humanist who believes the death and destruction wrought on ALL sides of this battle is horrifying and should stop. I believe we Americans should make it our business to do our own research and study of the ongoing crisis, as well as its history. But I have no answers and, frankly, this column is not about finding answers to the behemoth that is the Trouble in the Middle East.
It's about Rachel Corrie. And to my mind, after following the story from back when it happened in 2003 right up to looking at videos of her death, it is impossible to believe that a girl standing tall in a bright red jacket, alone in her spot, very obvious and visible, was not seen by a single bulldozer driver. I can only make my judgment based on the photographs and videos and I, personally, find the "accidental" judgment hard to believe.
So I remain horrified. It is a sad and sorry chapter in the struggle for human rights, one that has far too many chapters in far too many corners of the globe. This was one of them, and when you watch the heart and passion of Rachel as she talks about the horrors of what she witnessed being there, observing in real time, feeling the anguish of everyday people – NOT politicians – who were so deeply impacted by what was going on, it's not hard to feel great loss at her death. She was someone who was making a difference, who would've gone on to make a greater difference as her life evolved. That a man in a bulldozer hell-bent on blindly following orders to destroy people's homes saw fit to ignore the girl in the red jacket as he followed his orders is a great tragedy…for all of us.
I hope, Thomas, many people read your column and make it their business to find My Name is Rachel Corrie. I know I will. (and sorry for the long comment…this story just gets to me…)