April 22, 2006

Rachel Corrie goes underground in Toronto

Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star on the pushing of the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, underground in Canada.
Rachel Corrie was born in Washington, killed in the Gaza Strip, praised in London and censored in Manhattan.

Now she's being forced to go underground in Toronto.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie is a play based on the life and words of the 23-year-old American activist who died in Gaza on March 16, 2003, after an incident involving an Israeli Defence Forces bulldozer.

Corrie's supporters claim she was run over deliberately during the course of a peaceful political demonstration. Those on the opposing side insist the bulldozer driver couldn't see her and it was simply an accident.

The New York production of the play was recently cancelled, because of fears that its pro-Palestinian stance would upset the Jewish community at a difficult political time.

This decision provoked a worldwide debate that has become so heated it has become necessary to keep secret the exact location of a simple reading of the script for 50 people at the University of Toronto Sunday night.

But the astonishing thing about this whole affair is that at no point in the play's history has it been the cause of any actual confrontations or demonstrations.

It's the fear of what might happen that seems to be motivating people's actions.

Paul Leishman, who is directing Sunday's reading with actress Marya Delver, explains that "the play was intended to be an exploration of a girl's life, but now it's caught up in the crossfire of much larger issues."

Shortly after Corrie's death, a series of emails she wrote from her time in Gaza were published in The Guardian and came to the attention of London's Royal Court Theatre. They contacted Corrie's family, who made their daughter's writings from the age of 10 available to them.

The script, compiled by actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner, opened in April 2005, to reviews that were mostly highly enthusiastic.

Charles Spencer, in The Daily Telegraph, captured the tone when he called it "a powerful, thought-provoking and deeply moving piece of theatre."

After a sold-out run at the Royal Court, it transferred to the West End, where it is still running. The rights for the first North American production were awarded to James Nicola, head of the highly regarded New York Theatre Workshop.

Nicola scheduled a March 22 opening, but a month before the date, he wrote to the Royal Court asking if he could "indefinitely postpone" the production.

He gave his reasons in an interview with The Guardian: "In listening to our communities in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon's illness and the election of Hamas, we had a very edgy situation. We found that our plan to present a work of art would be seen as us taking a stand in a political conflict that we didn't want to take."

Rickman was furious and pulled the rights instantly, claiming, "This is censorship born out of fear."

The ensuing battle was waged in newspapers, on radio and television and all over the Internet.

Some praised Nicola for being responsible; others damned him as a coward.

It was in this atmosphere that Leishman contacted the Royal Court and asked for the rights to a single reading — as opposed to an open-ended production — of the play in Toronto.

Leishman is an ex-New Yorker who came to Canada in the mid-'90s to work as Richard Monette's assistant at the Stratford Festival.

When he left that job, he temporarily set aside the theatre as well, going to work for a Toronto law firm.

But Rachel Corrie's story lured him back.

"I remember hearing about her death in 2003," he recalls, "how gruesome and sad it was." But he hadn't read the script until the cancellation occurred and then he picked it up "to see if there was anything there to provoke all this tempest."

What he discovered was "the story of a young woman who begins by asking what she should do with her life and experiences an awakening of concern and compassion for people."

Leishman says that roughly 40 per cent of the script deals with Corrie's life up until her decision to go to Palestine and the remaining 60 per cent with her time spent in Gaza.

Leishman felt it was important to have the play read "in a neutral, classroom situation, because Rachel was a student."

He was given just such a space, but then asked not to publicize the time and place of the reading, "because of the political partisans on both sides it might attract and the unpredictability of their responses."
Not-the-Lobby strikes again.

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