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Theater Review: The Controversial My Name is Rachel Corrie Finally Opens in New York

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For an unusual show, I offer an unusual review…

Nine Theses on My Name is Rachel Corrie

1. While it is a collection of a non-playwright’s journals, My Name Is Rachel Corrie is very deliberately constructed as a play by its “co-editors” Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner. It even has two acts — even though they’re not demarcated in the script and the intermissionless 90 minutes would seem to tell the audience otherwise. The first act introduces us to the character of Rachel, seen in the bedroom of her childhood home, as a 20-something college student and budding activist in Olympia, Washington. She tells us about Olympia, about the photos on her wall, about her impatience with her parents. She is Everygirl. The state of Israel is barely mentioned at all in this first 20 pages of a 52-page monologue.

I imagine this is the most surprising aspect of the play to those coming to it with expectations fueled by the controversy. “What’s so controversial?” many find themselves asking — especially for the first 45 minutes.

2. As they have constantly stated, Rickman and Viner’s guiding principle for the play was to portray Rachel as a human being, not as a mouthpiece for a political position. But obviously her politics have defined her as a human being — both to the world and even to herself, it now seems. The interest the play takes in her, then, is as an idealist. I think what has made it both appealing and frustrating to all who encounter it — reading or seeing, London or New York — is the abstractness with which this idealism is presented for much of the evening.

This is also how the play skirts the more controversial elements of Rachel’s chosen cause. No passages are included, for instance, where Rachel explains, why Palestine as opposed to, say, Darfur? The play would have us believe Rachel only wanted to do good and help people, anywhere. Surely there must have been something that got her involved specifically in this issue, and in the International Solidarity Movement. But that is left out. She is presented as an accidental heroine, who might as well have spun a globe and stopped her finger on Gaza.

I also assume that if she self-identified as an international human rights activist, her diaries and emails must be virulently anti-Bush. Barely a trace of that makes it into the play. We know what side she’s on, obviously, but the character of Rachel comes off here as effectively nonpartisan. After all, that would make her less “universal,” wouldn’t it?

3. I sense a kind of '60s nostalgia at work in this project. It explains why Rickman — presumably a man formed in that politically idealistic era — would have taken on this consuming project based merely on reading some excerpts of Rachel’s journals printed in the Guardian one day. I suspect what caught his attention was not diatribes against Israel, but such heartfelt pleas as this eloquent passage which he positions at the play's climax:

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 sit idly by and watch. What we [Americans] are paying for here [Israel] is truly evil… I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop.

 

These words are powerful in performance, especially as annunciated by the mature (she’s at least ten years older than the real Rachel) and classically trained Megan Dodds with all the force of Saint Joan. And it is probably the moment audiences can most poignantly “relate” to — not necessarily in being equally idealistic themselves, but even in wishing to be. And if they don't share the utopian idealism themselves, they may recognize this impulse from their own children.

4. One of the most theatrically notable things about the play is that it is the first high-profile staging of the voice of a new generation of American leftist activists, who are not the urban proles or recent immigrants of previous eras’ rallies and walkouts. We’re not in the land of Waiting for Lefty, Sticks and Bones or even Angels in America any more. Instead these are the white suburban middle class children of hippies, who turn their idealistic dreams out onto the world more than domestic politics. My Name is Rachel Corrie documents and pays tribute to this demographic — a demographic the producers would be smart to woo to the play with cheaper ticket prices and possibly late night performances.

5. Amidst all the absractions, the best parts of My Name is Rachel Corrie are the most concrete. The meticulous detailing in Part Two of Rachel’s observations of daily life in Gaza. “60,000 people from Rafah worked in Israel two years ago,” she says, referring to the period before the latest intifada. “Now only 600 can go there for jobs. Of these 600, many have moved, because the three checkpoints make a 40-minute drive into a 12-hour impassable journey.” We hear what it’s like living day to day with her Palestinian host family; she sleeps on the floor with their children, enjoying Hollywood horror movies with them on TV. “Do you think I’m hanging out with Hamas fighters?” is her answer to her mother’s fears she’s getting involved with terrorism.

When it’s laying out this information so baldly as reportage, the play hints at a Brechtian political theatre. But at its core, the play exemplifies just the opposite kind — what Brecht would call the “Aristotelian” theatre of empathy, which focuses us on an abstract, emotional, sense of individual “humanity” rather than specific historical and social circumstances surrounding the individual. In short: Palestinians are people, too. Sounds trite — but at its best, MNIRC reminds us why that sentiment is so vital to our sense of justice. For instance: some still accuse Rachel — and the play — of either dishonesty or naivete for ignoring the network of underground tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the occupied territories — but are they really saying, therefore, there are no "innocent" Palestinians?

These tunnels — which, yes, do exist — are supposed to end all argument on this subject, it seems. But by demanding that we think for just a moment of at least some residents of occupied Gaza who may really just be trying to get to work every day and feed their families, the play achieves one of the noblest goals of empathy-theatre: to shine a light on a far off corner of the world so you can put yourself in the shoes of someone whose race, religion, or nationality previously identified them in our culture as sub-human. In other words, “evildoers.” When such empathy is established, then the horrors of what Rachel condemns as “collective punishment” of a people (expressly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions and the U.N.) come home in a way that brings together the personal and political.

6. But all of this is simply narrated from the stage, not enacted. It is demonstrated through anecdote and vocal outrage, but not presented for us to see. Nor, of course, are we hearing this from the voices of the oppressed, but from this white American intermediary, an interpreter. So the very format and mission of the play — to give us “Rachel’s words” and no more — ultimately limits the emotional — and political — impact of the story she tried to tell, the facts she wanted to get out.

It’s a familiar Hollywood tactic for championing the cause of oppressed people considered too “other.” Funny enough, it was especially prominent in '80s films by other liberal Brits like Richard Attenborough and Alan Parker. Mississippi Burning wasn’t about black civil rights activists, but about the white FBI agents nobly hunting down their killers. Cry Freedom wasn’t about Denzel’s Steve Biko, but Kevin Kline with a British accent trying to save him. And if you can strain your memories to recall Parker’s dud Welcome to the Paradise, the plight of interned Japanese-Americans is reflected through the heroic struggle of… Dennis Quaid!

For a liberal white US/UK audience, Rachel is our “way in”, our "eyes and ears." A voice we can trust, because we like her. Would the same audience as readily trust a Palestinian narrator? Especially since the logic of collective punishment — in short, the “tunnels” argument — tells us there are none in Gaza untainted by terrorism?

7. By trading in the Aristotelian, My Name is Rachel Corrie both gains in achieving sympathy for its martyred heroine and loses in political efficacy. Brecht would have hated this play beacuse its ending points the audience in no clear direction for possible action. I think Rickman and Viner want us to come out inspired that one person could make a difference. But does ending the play with the bulldozer inspire others to take up her cause?

(Vengeance against the state of Israel is certainly not encouraged. The argument that the Sharon government covered up its complicity in her death does not work its way on stage.)

So, it is a sad play. Which is a large part of its appeal. A moving personal story.

But this feeling of sadness seems more likely to instill fatalism in its audience than a constructive call to action.

This is why this is ultimately not at all a “dangerous” play.

8. On the other hand…

I can’t deny that the few passages Rickman and Viner select that do explicitly critique Israeli policy do create some refreshing political frisson in the auditorium.

The first such moment occurs about 20 minutes in. Rachel is on the phone with her mother, coaching her on how to talk to the press about her own activities:

Please think about your language when you talk to them. I think it was smart that you’re wary of using the word “terrorism” and if you talk about the cycle of violence, or “an eye for an eye” you could be perpetuating the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a balanced conflict, instead of a largely unarmed people against the fourth most powerful military in the world.

We’re just not used to hearing this position articulated so directly and unapologetically in our public discourse. Not on cable news. (Except perhaps as a two-minute hate.) And certainly not in the mainstream theatre.

(Incidentally, this speech actually got applause on opening night! But maybe it was prompted by the sentence that immediately follows and concludes the above excerpt: "These are the kind of things it's important to think about before talking to reporters." So it may have been received more as a jab at the media.)

By the way, there are really only a handful of such confrontational passages in the play. I reckon all of them together would run less than ten minutes. Like all great censorship fights in the theatre, the fight is over a play’s small moments, not overall argument.

But these ten minutes are by far the most compelling and, yes, exciting moments in the whole piece. Not because you’ll necessary nod along with them. But it’s just always dramatically powerful when someone violates a taboo on stage.

And you can’t totally discount the play’s value as political theatre when such dissident views (and, yes, even in liberal New York they are stilll dissident) are baldly stated from a public stage, even if couched in all kinds of protective layers of sympathy and sentiment.

9. In sum…

My Name is Rachel Corrie
spends a little too much time trying to normalize and humanize its heroine, instead of trusting her to speak through her bolder actions. Part One does get stuck in “All American Girl” mode, where Rachel’s everyday observations about growing up seem not only commonplace, but also frankly trivial compared to what we know is coming. I found myself caring a lot less about Olympia, Washington (especially a weird “Dairy Queen” digression in the midst of the Gaza story) than about her clear desire for danger and for championing the unpopular. I also ended up more interested in her Palestinian host family at one point than in her. I don’t think the problem is the documentary format. A more compelling script could probably have been culled from the same materials, if it dared to explore what was most different about Rachel, not most typical. (Typically American, typically idealistic, etc)

However, by the end I could see the payoff in the arc Rickman and Viner have constructed by beginning the way they do. Rachel’s bravery at the end is all the more impressive and moving given her modest beginnings. As an “innocents abroad” narrative, it arouses some pity and terror ultimately when the journey of self-discovery turns suddenly – very suddenly – into tragedy.

(In a recent look inside the play's process, Viner writes: "At the beginning of the play, Rachel could be any American teenager — and by the end, she could only be Rachel Corrie.")

As for Megan Dodds, she is a forceful, eminently watchable, and downright charming actress. Rickman’s casting of her reflects a deliberate shaping of the character (the fictional/dramatic Rachel) as the “innocent abroad.” A standard “old Europe” view of Americans, after all. Dodds’ thin but statuesque physique, her blonde haired, wide- and blue-eyed spark capture what the world has always thought of as the good American. Vibrant, optimistic and unspoiled, she is the American the world used to like, before Bush came along.

You can fault Rickman’s strategy of so privileging personal likeability in the character while still admiring Dodds’ talent and skill in pulling that off. And, as I’ve said, she knows how to unleash the more strident political energy and intelligence when called for.

Despite the many reservations detailed above, I would still have no problem recommending My Name Is Rachel Corrie if it were a $20 ticket at, say, The Culture Project. At a quick 90 minutes, it offers plenty to think about, a strong central performance, and engages the world. But at $65, though, I don’t know what audiences will enter hoping to get out of it. As an entertainment, it’s dramaturgically slight and doesn’t consistently enough hold one’s intellectual or emotional interest.

This is why I sincerely hope the producers — now confident enough to extend the play’s run through the end of the year — will see the wisdom of actively reaching out to Rachel’s ideal audience, the college students and young activists (especially young women) who are most likely to see something of themselves in her journey. Because of things like $65 tickets, our theatre so rarely addresses the young today. If this is a play for anyone it is for them, not the traditional subscribers, board members, and other gatekeepers of the current theatrical culture.

My Name is Rachel Corrie
Co-edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner
Starring Megan Dodds
At the Minetta Lane Theatre

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  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “This is why I sincerely hope the producers — now confident enough to extend the play’s run through the end of the year — will see the wisdom of actively reaching out to Rachel’s ideal audience, the college students and young activists (especially young women) who are most likely to see something of themselves in her journey. Because of things like $65 tickets, our theatre so rarely addresses the young today. If this is a play for anyone it is for them, not the traditional subscribers, board members, and other gatekeepers of the current theatrical culture.”

    We really need another “why I hate Israel” play catering to college students and filling them with hatred of Israel and Israelis?

    In my articles and comments to BC Magazine, I generally distinguish between an American government that pretends it is friendly to our nation but does everything it can behind the scenes to destroy it, and between the large majority of Americans who are somewhat sympathetic to our nation and our plight. After a few more years of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” brainwashing you into thinking that teenagers who side with terrorists are merely idealistic creatures deserving of empathy, I won’t have to dixstinguish between an evil government and an equally evil and finally openly hostile populace.

    Hopefully by then, my written Hebrew will have improved considerably – it won’t be worth writing in English anymore.