Activism on Stage

Activism on Stage

Opinion: A dramatic interpretation of Rachel Corrie’s life raises questions about what we can learn from an activist abruptly separated from her cause.


Elijah Barrett

January 8, 2007

By the time My Name is Rachel Corrie opened for a six-week run in New York City this fall, it had already received a great deal of media attention.

The one-woman drama recreates the life of the 23-year-old activist from Olympia, Wash., who was crushed by an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, in an attempt to protect a Palestinian house slated to be flattened. In March of 2006, one year after My Name is Rachel Corrie premiered in London, the New York Theater Workshop backed out of its agreement to put on the play, citing the then-current political climate, by which the theater meant Ariel Sharon’s life-threatening illness and the election of Hamas leaders in Palestine. The play’s creator accused the theater of censorship, and it stayed in London for another run. Finally, it moved to New York’s Minetta Lane Theater for six weeks this fall, followed by a two-week extension that ended Dec. 30. The Seattle Reperatory Theatre begins its performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie in March.

Directed by actor Alan Rickman and co-edited by Katharine Viner, the play draws on 184 pages of notes and emails spanning most of Corrie’s life, from childhood through to college to her time spent working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in conflict-ridden Gaza. Because the play uses Corrie’s own words, and not those of anyone who may disagree with her stance on the conflict, some critics have seen it as inherently political in nature.

But the play is more than a document or record of Corrie’s life and passing. And while My Name is Rachel Corrie is important for its political significance–it draws attention to the plight of Palestinians in their fight against the IDF–its chief merits lie in the fact that it asks, what can an activist, abruptly separated from her cause, teach other activists?

The first half of the play depicts Corrie’s life in Olympia, including a childhood filled with idealism, her activist work as a college student, and her ultimate decision to go to the Middle East. Corrie’s character appears to be smart and inventive. She exhibits the musings of a self-reflective, socially conscience student with a growing awareness of injustice outside of her community. In the second half, Corrie mostly reflects, in her journal and through email, on her experiences in Palestine, including conversations with Palestinians, interactions with Israeli soldiers, and her work with ISM. It closes with the date and place of Corrie’s death, and a video of her as a child speaking on global justice.

Feminist writer Adrienne Rich asks, “Isn’t there a difficulty of saying ‘we?’ You cannot speak for me. I cannot speak for us.” Corrie confronts the same issues that many activists do. “The scariest thing,” Corrie writes, “for non-Jewish Americans in talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of being or sounding anti-Semitic.” The more immediate question, self-determinism aside, is that many young activists believe that Palestinians are locked in an unequal battle with Israelis, and this, combined with the demolition of Palestinian homes is an injustice. How does the activist, in this case, stop this injustice without alienating those who disagree with them. Furthermore, Corrie’s writing asks, how should one speak out in communities other than their own, without seeming moralist, presumptuous, and self-aggrandizing?

As Rich would put it, “There is no liberation that only knows how to say “I”; there is no collective movement that speaks for us all the way through.” Corrie similarly realizes that she can only speak for herself, and cannot, as an American, speak for Palestinians or Israelis.

In one journal entry, Corrie admits, “I’m really new to talking about Israel-Palestine, so I don’t always know the political implications of my words.”

Furthermore, with her privilege as an American, she realizes that often her words carry greater weight with the press or with Israelis, for example, than those of the Palestinians; and that these words, if uninformed, can be both problematic in themselves and detrimental to the situation. In a list penned in her notebook, for instance she writes, “Notes from training: When talking–no hearsay. Call hospital and official sources. Use quotes. Don’t appear to judge rightness or wrongness.”

Corrie’s identification and rerealization of her own privileges, especially in contrast to the Palestinians she works with, figures notably in the play.

“Nothing could have prepared me for the reality of this situation here,” she writes. “You can’t imagine it unless you see it. And even then your experience is not at all the reality: what with the difficulties the Israeli army would have if they shot an unarmed U.S. citizen, the fact that I have money to buy water when the army destroys water, and of course, the fact that I have the option of leaving. I am allowed to see the ocean.” Corrie realizes that she is largely free to cross borders, leave Palestine behind her, and return home, while most in Palestine live amidst violence every day. She knows that the Palestinians also realize this difference between them, and writes, “I think even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere.”

As the play nears its end, Corrie is less of a foreigner, and the Palestinians’ experiences begin to become her own. A bullet rips through her tent, gun blasts and Apache helicopters startle her, she watches as a man and his children barely escape death. She begins to speak from experience as an American woman whose life is threatened every day, and who wakes from nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outsider her parents’ home.

In the same way that the play’s title asserts her name and identity, Corrie asserts that the daily violence in Palestine is her experience, and she can speak to it. In an email used in the play she writes, “Just want to tell my mom that 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.”

But Corrie can also see the productive side of her own fear. “When I come back from Palestine I probably will have nightmares and constantly feel guilty for not being here,” she writes. “But I can channel that into more work. Coming here is one of the better things I’ve ever done.”

For other young activists, it is Corrie’s refusal to distance herself from those whom she empathizes with that makes My Name is Rachel Corrie worth seeing–and learning from.

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