As I went downtown to see the play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” last night, I read the Forward‘s coverage of Jimmy Carter’s much-awaited book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Forthcoming from Simon & God bless them Schuster.. The article said that supporters of Israel are most upset by the characterization in the title, apartheid. That characterization used to upset me too, as being tendentious and emotional, till I went to Hebron last summer, the second largest city in the West Bank, where Arabs cannot set foot in large portions of the city center, and met a South African church worker who had lived through apartheid and who said that the conditions of the Israeli occupation were worse than apartheid. The people in the occupied territories have lived under Israeli administration for 40 years and had two elections in that time, yet we call Israel a democracy.
This is in the end the power of Rachel Corrie’s words. I know people in the theater world, and so I have heard the rap against the play in the last few months. That it is a piece of polemics, not theater, and that as theater qua theater it is not that effective, too spare and one-note.
I was inclined to agree with these critics for the first half hour of the show at the Minetta Lane Theatre. The makers of Rachel Corrie, Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner of the Guardian, chose to use all Rachel’s words, without any other voices, until the end. The result is that we get a psychic autobiography of an American girl, for the first 30 minutes, and then she is in the Israeli occupation, and her politics are no longer poetical, they are existential. This is one of the most terrific moments you could have on any stage, anywhere, when Meghan Dodds rolls back the divider that is her apartment wall in Olympia, Wa., and is suddenly engaged with the stark set we have been regarding in the dim background all the while, the concrete wall of a blasted refugee camp in Gaza. Terrific.
Rachel Corrie was a poet. There is no doubt about it from this play. She was 23 and just getting started, but she had attained a splendid clarity of articulation of thought and feeling that some people live a lifetime in comfort and don’t attain. She was I imagine a troubled person, a person who was called to suffering, and could tolerate disorder. That is what people said at her memorial service at Evergreen College three years ago, and I guess I wish that there had been some interpolation of those voices. Maybe two other actors, to break up the monolog.
But in some large dimension, this is a beautiful play, and that beauty is achieved when Megan Dodds is bearing witness before Rachel’s death, stating Rachel Corrie’s apprehensions of the effect of the Israeli occupation, and in particular the destruction of Palestinian greenhouses. Sending it out on her computer amid gunfire. I was deeply disturbed by my own visit to the occupation. I saw the denial of hope with my own eyes. I saw the separateness and absence of democratic conditions, I saw the two systems of roads, and yes I saw the Palestinian hatred and murderous feeling. I did not witness the overt brutalizzation that Rachel Corrie observed and then experienced herself. The beauty of this play is that you see a young woman’s transformation before your eyes; and the piece conveys through the words of a young and idealistic, and not that innocent west coast poet, the horrors of what our country has licensed in the Middle East. I say not that innocent because at the end Rachel Corrie spoke with focus and maturity and power, with the hope that she might change American opinion. Which is why the New York Theatre Workshop cancelled the production last spring, because of the strength of the pro-Israel community, even in the sophisticated New York scene.
The times are changing. Jimmy Carter’s book is coming out, Leon Wieselier and the New Republic spend half of Marty Peretzi’s hardearned ink fighting Tony Judt. Walt and Mearsheimer are doing a book for FSG. George Soros and the Israel Policy Forum are starting a lobby to counter AIPAC, or maybe to be to the left of the Israeli government, in this country. Perestroika.