If you're as theater-crazed as I am—and you probably are—what you're about to read reflects monumentally on the nature of the live performance marketplace as we know it. If you're not, that's cool. There's a lot here you'll come away with about art, democracy, the Palestinian performance community, media impact and a major local actor's take on all four.
Either way, please take some serious heed:
A tiny but vocal element in San Diego theater may soon be stepping up alongside that in New York, London and Seattle, three cities that figure critically in a real-life flap over self-censorship and freedom of expression. As its upshot reverberates, whoever coined the term “political theater” has just snagged a Tony retroactively in a new category-Best Understatement by an Unknown.
The noise is over a one-person play called My Name Is Rachel Corrie, culled from journal entries and e-mails by the late American activist, who in 2003 visited Israel to protest the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians. Corrie, an Olympia, Wash., native who took the trip as part of the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement was killed in March of that year as she stood in the path of an American-made Israeli military bulldozer. The machinery was reportedly excavating tunnels used by Palestinian weapons smugglers in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. At the time of the incident, the operator was preparing to level a Palestinian doctor's house.
Witnesses said that despite their shouts and warnings, the driver hit Corrie twice, first advancing over her and then backing across her. Other accounts reflect that Corrie, 23, was not crushed but struck her head on the equipment as she lost her footing and died of the injury.
Neither the United States nor Israel has substantially addressed the matter. A U.S. House bill calling for an investigation died before it got to the floor.
Per its ages-old obligation, the theater quickly took up the slack. Katharine Viner, a features editor at London's The Guardian, and Alan Rickman, a British actor known for his roles in the Harry Potter films, edited the script from Corrie's exhaustive writings, relinquished by her parents. The play, set around such angles as Corrie's relationship with her mom and dad, the guys she dated and her place in the world, premiered last fall in London under Rickman's direction (it eventually received three Theatregoers Choice awards). The board at the New York Theatre Workshop, venue for the acclaimed musical Rent, voiced unanimous support in January for including the play in its season; rehearsals got under way, and the American debut was set for March 22.
But in late February, the company bumped the show. Viner, who didn't respond to CityBeat's request for an interview, quoted Workshop artistic director James Nicola's explanation in The Guardian's March 1 issue:
“In our preproduction planning and our talking around and listening in our communities in New York, what we heard was that after [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon's [incapacitating Jan. 4 stroke] and the election of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections, we had a very edgy situation.”
The fur's been flying ever since. Its byproducts range from an excellent cover story on the matter in April 3's The Nation magazine to a segment on public television's Democracy Now! to a glut of e-mails and blog entries that cry “dismay” and “lame” and “whitewash” and “hypocrisy” and “capitulation to Zionist censors.” Sifting through that maze is arduous, but it does yield an important finding in the Workshop's defense.
A Workshop representative who chose anonymity (and who fielded CityBeat's questions on behalf of Nicola, who declined to speak) insists that “the show was never canceled nor postponed indefinitely, as the London press keeps reporting,” only delayed until such time as the Workshop could “complete the process of preproduction research” and “put all logistical and business matters in order.”
Viner, who had a plane ticket to New York in hand when the Workshop made its announcement, isn't having any of it. Corrie, she wrote in the March 1 Guardian, “was to be silenced for political reasons.... [I]f a voice like this cannot be heard on a New York stage, what hope is there for anyone else?”
Enter San Diego's Seema Sueko, who's wondering the same thing as she seeks the rights to the play. As it happens, the founding artistic director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company is in a unique position to comment-Corrie's story, she said, was the catalyst for remains, which she wrote and performed in San Diego in 2004 as a product of her own travels through Gaza in 1993. She's since formed a relationship with Corrie's mom Cindy, who attended the final night of the show.
Laila, remains' central character, is an American Muslim found dead in Tel Aviv. Her personal effects-including her journal, now in the hands of her mother-yield the story of her final four months as a congressional assistant investigates the death. All the while, the program states, “we meet good, bad, beautiful, ugly and funny people on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The 33-year-old Sueko, a Muslim of Pakistani and Japanese heritage, recounted her recent performance of remains at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minn. “They had this poster,” she said, “that said ‘Israel' and ‘Palestine.' They had a list of all the events [surrounding] the show. Nobody complained. [In San Diego], we would get e-mails and phone calls saying, ‘There is no Palestine'; ‘The Palestinian people don't exist'; ‘They're terrorists.' That's sort of how it is in urban areas of the U.S. What the New York Theatre Workshop did is not surprising to those of us who are involved in the issue. It happens all the time.”
Well, not all the time. The Workshop's representative asserted that the group “has been in ongoing conversations with several Palestinian-American artists; in particular, we are working with a Palestinian-American playwright [whose script will] be produced [here] this summer.” And “in the past, [we] produced a theatrical exploration of Jean Genet's novel Prisoner of Love, a pro-Palestinian work... that had been passed over by another New York theater.”
Goody for the Workshop, Sueko noted-but those actions, she said, are the exception that makes the rule. She recalled a 1989 incident in which a Palestinian theater group had traveled to the U.S. for a series of pro-Palestinian entries, only to be turned away unless a pro-Israeli piece was staged alongside. And a piece on Palestinian performance art was presented in American Theatre magazine in 2003, only months after Corrie's death. The following issue, Sueko said, “was filled with so much hate. ‘How dare you talk to the Palestinians'; ‘They're trying to drive the Jews into the sea'-all the typical stuff you hear whenever people want to silence any Palestinian voice.”
Even Israel itself has let pro-Palestinian performance art stand on its own. An Israeli theater company is reportedly seeking the rights to the Corrie play. And in 1988, the Haifa Municipal Theatre of Israel staged an entry entitled The Palestinians, which seeks to illustrate the Palestinian homeland plight. Artistic director Joshua Sobel “had the name on the marquee,” Sueko said, “out there for everybody to see. People protested and all sorts of things. But the play went on. It was a turning point in the cultural landscape of Israel. In Israel, they're sort of over it. Here in the U.S., it's taboo.
“What [the Workshop] did is sort of an example of how American theater likes to be liberal and progressive, but in reality, it isn't. [Too often], it's one-sided and squeamish.”
The Seattle Repertory Theatre will stage Rachel Corrie in the spring of 2007 as the play's American premiere. According to The Seattle Times, artistic director David Esbjornson has said the New York dispute was not a factor in his group's decision to mount the work. Neither, Sueko said, would it weigh in the balance of Mo`olelo's production.
“We'd be a good company to do it,” she said. “We've already laid the groundwork with remains. We know the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups. We know the American-Arab community. We know the Israeli community, many of whom came out to see remains and to dialogue.”
Mo`olelo-or at least Sueko-also acknowledges an enormous cultural shift in the American performance landscape, one that this incident conveniently illustrates. New York is no longer the country's theater capital in the Broadway sense, as it's turned so much of its attention to big-bucks, tourist-friendly musicals and the stars that fuel them.
Rachel Corrie, who'd fancied herself an artist and a writer, would likely have taken note of that. In fact, she unwittingly and vaguely addresses it, and the genesis of her play, in one of her meticulously worded e-mails to her mom.
“Many people want their voices to be heard,” she wrote, “and I think we need to use some of our privilege as internationals to get those voices heard directly in the U.S. rather than through the filter of well-meaning internationals such as myself. I am just beginning to learn, from what I expect to be a very intense tutelage, about the ability of people to organize against all odds and to resist against all odds.”
Accordingly, it doesn't really even matter if the script is an aesthetic flop. The late Bertolt Brecht could paint characters about as well as he could lick his elbow, yet his works resonate with audiences because they speak to the passion behind his Marxist causes. It's the same thing here. The Corrie play is a landmark testament to a horrifying turn of events on the world stage, and for better or worse, it's found homes in Great Britain and the United States. If Sueko and Mo`olelo mount it locally, San Diego theater will emerge the stronger amid a brush with true community activism and the courage that marks it—a performance phenomenon that Sueko would sardonically call an American dream in the most literal sense of the term.