Anatomy of a play postponed

Slated to open this month at Oregon Stage Works, "My Name is Rachel Corrie" was removed from the summer schedule by Peter Alzado, OSW's artistic director, for reasons that are still being discussed in the community.

Clearly, "Corrie" arrived with a plenty of baggage. The intense one-woman drama is based on edited e-mails from Corrie to her family, as well as journal entries. Performed at the Royal Court Theater in London, and later canceled by the New York Theater Workshop, which is known for championing politically edgy works, the play has sparked controversy.

In a recent Daily Tidings story about the OSW cancellation, Alzado said, "It's not about free speech, but whether or not it is a fair representation. If we're going to present something that is politically provocative, we need to make sure it is factual."

The issue is not an abstract one for many in Ashland, where Corrie's uncle, aunt and cousins live. As Corrie's death has played out on the national scene, it crystalizes in Ashland the diverse, emotional and at times painful division in our community among those on both sides of the Israel/Palestinian issues. Just as it does in the world, the issue simmers in a constant state of unresolve here in Ashland, frequently bubbling up in letters to the editor, public presentations or in this case, the possible production of a play.

Who is Rachel Corrie?

As it turns out, the facts surrounding the death of Rachel Corrie are elusive at best.

What is not in dispute:

On March 16, 2003, Corrie, 23, a member of the International Solidarity Movement who had traveled to Gaza during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, died horribly beneath an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer while protesting what she believed was to be the razing of a Palestinian family's home. The place was Hai as-Salam, a Palestinian area of Rafah, close to the border with Egypt, and an area Israel had designated a security zone.

Raised in Olympia, Wash., Corrie was the daughter of Craig Corrie, an insurance executive, and Cindy Corrie, an amateur flautist. She attended Evergreen State College, and spoke often of becoming a writer or a poet. She traveled to the Middle East, arriving in Gaza on Jan. 18, 2003, to participate in pro-Palestinian ISM-organized human-shield demonstrations in Rafah. On Feb. 15, 2003, she took part in a protest against the war in Iraq and is shown in a photograph, surrounded by Palestinian children, burning an American flag.

On March 14, in an interview with the Middle East Broadcasting Network, Corrie said, "I feel like I'm witnessing the systematic destruction of a people's ability to survive... Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realize there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I'm having dinner with."

Two days later she was dead.

In a Wikipedia report, Joe Carr, an ISM activist from Kansas City, Mo,, described the events which led up to Corrie being killed: On March 16, ISM activists noticed two Israeli bulldozers and one tank entering onto Palestinian civilian property. "We began to disrupt the work of the bulldozers," Carr said. "At this point, Rachel and two other activists joined us. Rachel and a British activist were wearing jackets that were fluorescent orange and had reflective stipping (sic).

"Rachel and the two activists began interfering with the other bulldozer, which was attempting to destroy grass and other plants on what used to be farmland. They stood and sat in its path, and though it would drive very close to them, and even move the earth on which they were sitting, it always stopped in time to avoid injuring them.

"One bulldozer began to work near the house of a physician who is a friend of ours. Rachel sat down in the pathway of the bulldozer... It continued driving forward, headed straight for Rachel. When it got so close that it was moving earth beneath her, she climbed onto the pile of rubble being pushed by the bulldozer. She got so high onto it that she was eye-level with the cab of the bulldozer. Despite this, he continued forward, which pulled her legs into the pile of rubble, and pulled her down out of view of the driver. We ran towards him and waved our arms and shouted, one activist with a megaphone. But (he) continued forward, until Rachel was underneath the central section of the bulldozer."

Tom Dale, who was standing just yards away from Corrie, told Newsweek's Jerusalem Bureau Chief Joshua Hammer, " seemed like she got her foot caught under the blade. She was helpless, pushed prostrate, and looked absolutely panicked, with her arms out, and the earth was piling over her. The bulldozer continued so that the place where she fell down was directly beneath the cockpit."

What is in dispute is whether the driver of the bulldozer saw her.

The photographic evidence is unclear. Hammer wrote in Mother Jones magazine that the "operators, peering out through narrow, double-glazed, bulletproof windows, their view obscured behind pistons and the giant scooper, might not have seen Corrie kneeling in front of them."

On June 26, 2003, the Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli spokesman: "The driver at no point saw or heard Corrie. She was standing behind debris which obstructed the view of the driver and the driver had a very limited field of vision due to the protective cage he was working in. The International Solidarity Movement, to which Corrie belonged, was directly responsible for illegal behavior and conduct in the area of Corrie's death and their actions directly led to this tragedy." The report also stated that the bulldozer was attempting to clear brush and search for explosives and was not demolishing a house.

Cynthia Ozick, in The New Republic, wrote, "The civilian homes are weapons depots, or outlets, sometimes with complicit families still in them, concealing tunnels dug from Egypt to Gaza. The tunnels smuggle guns, rocket launchers, explosives...."

Eulogized by Yasir Arafat, of the PLO, Corrie was called a martyr of the Intifada, her actions described as heroic. To others she was profoundly naive, a hapless idealist who wrote, "The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian nonviolent resistance."

Ozick describes her as a young woman who has journeyed "from one continent to another to enter a history of which she was uncommonly ignorant. This is not ignorance of naivete'. It is willful, and willful ignorance is indistinguishable from false witness."

The vehicle for Corrie's entrenched beliefs was ISM, self-described as an international organization dedicated to freeing the Palestine people from their Israeli occupiers. Others, such as Ozick, characterize the organization as a cynical front for the PLO, which is willing to use innocents for propaganda.

And why this play?

The truth about the death of Rachel Corrie may never be fully known.

Certainly the purpose of the play, "My Name is Rachel Corrie," is not to present a fair and balanced accounting. How could it be? Corrie was neither impartial or unbiased; rather, she was a full-throated pro-Palestinian advocate. Their cause was her cause, viewed through the prism of the newly converted.

As word got out that OSW was considering producing "Corrie," to be directed by Geoffrey Blaisdell, with Nell Geisslinger as Rachel Corrie, Alzado wrote, in a Tidings' letter to editor, that he began to hear rumblings of dissension in the community. "The stir the production would create for this young theater caused me concern, and led me to the decision not to do the play."

Suddenly, the situation became one in which there was not only concern on the part of some regarding the anticipated production of the play, but an outcry about its cancellation wherein charges were made in the Tidings' Letters to the Editor that the cancellation amounted to censorship and a restriction of free speech.

"We feel that the actions of those who oppose the production of 'My Name is Rachel Corrie,'" wrote Blaisdell and Geisslinger, "are nothing short of censorship and blatant intimidation of local artists. What could have been a forum for dialogue between people of many beliefs and opinions, and an opportunity for the community to become more informed and educated therein, has been stifled."

In an e-mail to the Tidings, Gary Acheatel, one of the founders of Advocates for Israel, wrote, "It is my personal goal that this volatile and complicated topic be fully explored and discussed in open exchanges, instead of one-sided propaganda pieces disguised as theater that purposely distort historical events for the purpose of influencing the unknowing public."

Rabbi Marc Sarinsky, of Temple Emek Shalom, along with Rabbi David Zaslow, of Havarah Shir Hadash, wrote a letter to the Tidings as representatives of "much of the organized Jewish Community in Southern Oregon and northern California." Their intent was to make clear that a "democratic society depends on free speech and access to a diversity of opinions and information." Sarinsky and Zaslow went on to state that from the "point of view of the community that we serve, censorship and artistic intimidation are anathema to the kind of society we are working to build."

Alzado attempted to make it clear that his decision to cancel the production was never an issue of free speech. As artistic director of OSW, he viewed the public's reactions from the point of view of the impact such controversy would have on the fledgling theater. Were he an artist, and just an artist, he said, his reaction might have been different.

Nevertheless, the process of thinking about the play in all of its complexity, about its being politically charged, was in the end, he emphasized, very fortuitous and ultimately beneficial. Alzado was forced to reevaluate the role of art, such as theater, in the community. "There's the idea that an artist just does the art. That's it, and walks away. I can appreciate that. But someone working in the arts also has a responsibility to the social fabric of the community."

But how to strike a balance between artistic integrity and community responsibility?

It was at this point that he began to reconsider his decision to cancel the play and began thinking of ways to produce the play, not as an agitprop, but in a manner that would be responsible and more inclusive of the many different points of view which the play elicits.

"I set up a meeting with Rabbi Sarinsky," Alzado said, "to discuss how to present this piece so that it will not be dissentious; rather offer some understanding. I spoke with Rachel's aunt and uncle about doing this. So what to do? How do we go about approaching this?"

Alzado, reflecting on the events, said, "This whole process (of sorting out how to produce a play to its greatest effect), which is generally done in a room alone, had now become public."

As a result of meeting with Rabbis Sarinsky and Zaslow, he began to formulate the idea that the play should not be done in isolation. "Had I gone ahead with the 'Rachel Corrie' piece, it would have just become another play that we did."

He began to view the evolving circumstances surrounding the play as a unique opportunity, and considered (and this is still in its formative stage, Alzado made clear) doing a "festival."

"I came up with the idea of doing a festival of pieces, including 'Corrie,' presenting poetry readings, songs, plays." The most important aspect to the "festival," he said, would be an attempt to humanize both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "Not so much from the political point of view, but trying to put a human face on both sides of the spectrum instead of pointing fingers."

He now sees the production as an event, a way of "using theater to examine the conflict from all sides. To think we're looking for material, now, that offers multiple points of view. That becomes very exciting as an artistic director."

The "festival" will open as part of the 2008 OSW season.

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