- homepage link


Thoughts on My Name Is Rachel Corrie
By Miriam Felton-Dansky

When the New York Theater Workshop recently postponed its run of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a controversial play about pro-Palestinian activist killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer, it did so apparently at the behest of a concerned Jewish community. There is no doubt that many Jews would be uncomfortable with the political message of the play -- but are there really significant numbers of American Jews whose discomfort would lead them to call for its cancellation? It's true that Hamas's recent electoral victory has made Israeli-Palestinian politics especially tense, and Jewish voices in favor of censorship do exist, as evidenced by the recent calls of an Israeli group for the film Paradise Now to be removed from the Oscars because of its portrayal of Palestinian suicide bombers. But I doubt that views like this represent the majority of even mainstream Jewish communal leadership, to say nothing, of course, of the many Jews who support the right of anyone to criticize Israel and, more to the point, oppose censorship of any kind. Caving in to those few who favor censorship is not only unfair to the play's creators and potential audiences, but also to those in the Jewish community and outside of it who are working against the circle-the-wagons mentality.

Of course, it's hard to speak accurately on Jewish public opinion on this issue since, despite the Jewish community's ostensible role in the postponement, little press coverage of the issue has conveyed the responses of members of the Jewish community. Writing in the New York Observer, John Heilpern quotes from an interview with NYTW artistic director Jim Nicola in which Nicola declined to cite any Jewish protestors but mentioned that several Jewish friends had "degrees of discomfort" with the play. "Degrees of discomfort," then: it does not sound as if AIPAC was pounding down the door.

Even if a Jewish majority was antagonized, though, postponement comes down to freedom of expression, and if that value is to be upheld then no group can be allowed a veto over content about which it is sensitive. As Heilpern writes, "Plays written in blood are not meant to be 'acceptable' or 'reach consensus.'" Yet consensus and acceptability -- the politics of the play -- have become the crux of the debate, obscuring discussion on the play itself. Both supporters and detractors of My Name Is Rachel Corrie argue on the merits of its political content alone: signatories of the online petition protesting the NYTW's decision comment over and over again that Corrie's is a voice that needs to be heard, that it is crucial that the American public understand the situation in which Palestinians live and the brutality of the Israeli occupation. Those few on the record as being opposed to the play's production in New York also engage only with its purported political content. An Israeli who signed the online petition against the NYTW writes that the play shows "misinterpretations of how Israel responds to terrorists" and that the large Israeli population living in New York would be offended by it.

All of this misses the fact that it is a play. If co-creators Katharine Viner and Alan Rickman had wanted to use Corrie to advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights, or to secure humanitarian aid for Palestinians, they might have written an Op-Ed about her, donated to the foundation that's been set up in her name, or lobbied the U.S. government not to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. The fact that they chose to engage with Corrie's legacy onstage suggests that they were hoping to turn her story into a specifically theatrical experience -- which raises the question of what kind of theatrical experience it is, or would have been: good or bad, saccharine or poignant, riveting or soporific?

Opinions vary on whether My Name Is Rachel Corrie was good. It won Best New Play prize at the London Theatregoers' Choice Awards, but Edward Rothstein, writing in the New York Times, suggests that it is naively one-sided, showing demolition of Palestinian homes without any hint at broader context. Of course, these opinions shouldn't have anything to do with the NYTW's right to produce it. The big question that is going unnoticed has to do with the purpose of political theater. Is the job of a play like My Name is Rachel Corrie to compellingly communicate one point of view, to make activists out of a theater audience? Conversely, should political theater always take all sides into account? Can there be a theater whose political effects are specifically theatrical, in a way that they could not be if the same sentiments were expressed in writing or in a tax-deductible donation? New York audiences can't know -- at least for now -- whether My Name Is Rachel Corrie has complexity, because questions about its theatrical qualities, and ultimately its politics too, are now masked behind questions of freedom of expression that shouldn't need to be fought over again.


©2003-10 All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or distribute in any form without express permission. Hunter Department of Theater . 695 Park Avenue . New York, NY 10065 .