The Antidote for jet-lag is a really great person or a really great program waiting for you on the other end. Fortunately for me, I’ve had both in spades, first arriving in Australia, and now returning late last night so I could hit the ground running today, Sunday, in DC, almost immediately bounding a chartered bus for Shepherdstown, West Virginia where 32 members of the Peace Café took in the Contemporary American Theatre Festival offerings of My Name is Rachel Corrie and Jason Grote’s 1001, a post-modern take on The Arabian Nights. In between those shows, we held an 80-minute Peace Café under the tent attended by some 130 plus who had seen the play over the weekend, with even a few others who hadn’t seen it, opting only to read it—and not be swayed the “emotionalism” of the performance—offering up comments on the work just the same. I had a few words for those very smart commentators who passed judgment but refused to experience the life that gets enacted before us. They were simply following Cynthia Ozick’s lead, of course, who offered an excoriating book review of the theater piece in last year’s New Republic (December 11, 2006 issue), she too opting not to be seduced by the emotional bells-and-whistles of a theatrical performance but rather choosing to concentrate on close textual interpolation and, in the process, getting it just a little bit wrong in making assumptions abount the meaning of certain passages, even while striving to add “balance” to a play that never promised or purported to be anything more than subjective diary entries.
That the play fails to hold to its own form of exclusive, first person emails and diary logs and instead opts for a clumsy, unconvincing first-hand reporting from ISM member Tom Dale who, at the very end, tells the BBC his version of how Corrie was killed and how she was “absolutely” within the view of the bulldozer driver and that it was emphatically an intentional act of murder and not an accident, is the play’s biggest misstep. This structural and artistic deviation from the terms that the work had set forward until that moment winds up smelling like a rat, and the cats surely pounce on it and in the process, are given to negating everything that’s come before.
There are, to be sure, negligible elements to the play. And I’ve said this many times before (and came prepared to say it again), Rachel Corrie is no one’s idea of a good reporter. She does not take in the other side. She rarely does due diligence in acknowledging the existence of tunnels through which arms might be smuggled – or soldiers kidnapped (but then how could she predict the future; she could hardly read the past) – and so she fails to make us fully understand the reasons why the IDF embarked on a controversial strategy of home demolitions and clearing away of brush and other offending hiding places that might prove to be threatening to Israel. The play is not a well argued play, though it is passionate. It doesn’t have a dramatic conflict, nor even an intellectual one, though it just might rip your heart out all the same, that is if you left yourself open to be moved by a spectacularly self-aware, self-assured, self-doubting, and self-dramatizing 23 year old. It’s true that even the Executive Director of our JCC, upon first hearing our reading of My Name is Rachel Corrie in our library last year, said that “she’s all of our daughters” (even while hoping that we not produce the play for other reasons). But yes, it’s true: Rachel’s an Every Girl in many a sense; an activist searching for a grand cause; an American somewhat ashamed of her whiteness, her privilege, her class, and her government’s policies. And just the same, she’s also an extraordinary spirit; a keenly aware daughter coming of age, both fierce and gentle as she converses electronically with her parents. And finally, Corrie is a critic of Israel, not at all fair, but outraged, under-informed and rough, but not necessarily dead-wrong about much of what she’s observed. Just, well, now dead. keep reading
Anyway, I should double back to make this point: Cynthia Ozick, our bright, hard, orthodox, literary rightist critic who has taken increasingly to being much more of a scold than creatively-inclined (which is to say generous) artist, points, wrongly, to a part in the play where she suggests that Rachel Corrie might have coyly engineered her own useable death. “Media savvy herself,” Ozick writes, “she understood, as we have seen, the notion of a useable death: ‘the difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen.’” It was a notion repeated at our table today, by someone who had read the play text and The New Republic review but has opted out of the performance. The suggestion was made that Rachel might have engineered her death for media purposes, and the suggestor used Ozick’s citation of the script as proof. And it’s just all wrong. When that line is first uttered in the play there is zero intentionality nor martyrdom being contemplated.
Which is not to say that Ozick and critics at the Peace Café don’t bring up valid points. They do. They just also despise the play. They resent the play. And they are even afraid of the play and what might happen should it fall into the hands and hearts of the wrong audience. And my message for this entire past year-and-a-half has been this is neither a play to fear nor even despise. It’s too honest, too limited; too human to despise or dismiss. It is rather a sliver of experience. A young girl’s big life and her tiny hand-held mirror shining light and reflecting back a small piece of Palestinian suffering, Israeli brutality, American privileged indifference (and distance); all of which is, in part, real. It isn’t the whole story. It isn’t even half the story. But it’s part of the story. And for Chrissake, she was 23 and an innocent with lots of idealism and she had something to say and she wasn’t an idiot. We’re big enough to hear her heartbreak. We should be big enough to assume some responsibility; not just fact check and chastise.
So then everybody comes up to me after the Peace Cafe and asks if we’re going to see MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE on a Theater J stage. And I say no. In two weeks we’re going to begin seeing performances of our deconstruction of the Rachel Corrie controversy, Aaron Davidman’s CHASING JUSTICE/SEEKING TRUTH, which was originally subtitled, “Musings on the Parallel (But Radically Different) Lives and Deaths of Rachel Corrie and Daniel Pearl.”
And then, after seeing the second play on the bill, like an enthused theater maniac, I said, “Hell, no, I won’t do Rachel Corrie, cause it’s boring theater. But I can’t wait to produce 1001 cause that’s rock n roll theater and just as provocative and full of ideas and argument and theatrical craft and flourish.” And that’s how I left Shepherderstown; sky-high on a cloud about the many possibilities of theater on a day spent seeing great performances (in both Rachel Corrie and the spledid and splendidly attractive 1001) and a day full of fascinating engagement with good, tough issues, and very full discussions amongst an interesting collection of people, both Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
There’ll be lots of press coverage of the festival, the plays and our peace café. So look for pieces this week in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Jewish Week, and on Voice of America radio.
Tomorrow, I’m interviewed by Al-Jazeera television. Won’t that be fun? I’ll see Motti Lerner on satellite. And Rachel Corrie producer/director Ed Herendeen in the Al-Jazeera studio as well. No one’s nervous.
We just need a little nap.
Never a dull day at Theater J.