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Controversial Play in Spotlight at Contemporary American Theater Festival
By Susan Logue
Shepherdstown, WVa.
23 July 2007

Ann Marie Nest portrays Corrie in the CATF production of 'My Name is Rachel Corrie'
The Contemporary American Theater Festival, held each July in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, has never shied away from controversial subject matter. This year's festival is drawing attention for one play in particular.

My Name is Rachel Corrie is a one-woman play pieced together from journals and e-mails written by 23-year-old Rachel Corrie. The young American was working in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement in 2003 as a human shield.

Corrie's parents had recognized her talent as a writer from an early age. After her death, they wanted to share her work with the public, but Cindy Corrie says the idea of producing a play just evolved.

Rachel's parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, have seen the play many times
"Some people in London happened to read Rachel's e-mails in the newspaper, in 'The Guardian,' where they were printed during the first week after she was killed. Some of those people were connected with the Royal Court Theater. They approached us with the idea and we kind of flowed with it."

Those people were actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner, who edited and assembled Corrie's writings for dramatic effect.

In one particularly prescient scene, Anne Marie Nest, who portrays Corrie, speaks words written in an e-mail to her mother just days before she tried to block an Israeli bulldozer and was killed. "I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside," Corrie wrote. "Sometimes the adrenaline acts as an anesthetic for weeks, and then at night it just hits me again, a little bit of the reality of the situation here. I'm really scared for these people."

My Name is Rachel Corrie premiered in London two years ago without controversy, but its arrival in New York was postponed for many months. Other theaters in Florida and Boston decided not to mount productions after complaints that the play gave an unbalanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza.

Ed Herendeen, founder and producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, says theater should pose questions
"I've been doing this for over 30 years, and I can't remember a work of art having to be required to be balanced," says Ed Herendeen, founder and producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

Herendeen, who also directed the production, says when he read the play, he realized that "it could be inflammatory to some people." But, he says, he did not see it that way.

"All the pre-controversy and drama surrounding this production really had very little to do with this young woman's story." Herendeen says he didn't see Corrie as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. "She was writing her view of the world at the age of 23. And her view of the world was: Why are we doing this to one another? This has to stop. This violence has to stop."

But Corrie clearly identifies with the Palestinians, at one point describing the conflict as "a largely unarmed people against the fourth most powerful military in the world."

After a lengthy discussion, the board of the CATF decided to support Herendeen's decision to mount the play. But following that decision one trustee resigned and withdrew a pledge of $100,000.

In addition, some regular festival-goers said they would not attend this year. Those who did attend were invited to participate in a dialogue on the issue.

Actor Ann Marie Nest (r) joined the post-performance discussion of the play 'My Name is Rachel Corrie
After a Sunday matinee, the audience adjourned to a large tent, where they sat in small groups and discussed the play and the issues it raises. Afterwards, some of them shared their opinions with the entire group.

Several people applauded the Contemporary American Theater Festival for producing the play, despite pressure not to, and one woman noted, "Whatever your point of view, she was a tremendous communicator."

While some Jews who joined the discussion said the play made them feel "a little defensive." One Jewish man, when asked if he had a similar reaction, said "not at all."

One man was not pleased with the play's description of the International Solidarity Movement as a peace movement. "I don't think it is a peace movement. I think it is a terrorist front for radical Islamic militants." He added that the group "tantalizes idealistic kids like Rachel Corrie to go in and become part of this movement thinking they are only doing good."

That last opinion was also expressed in a two-page ad in the playbill under the banner "My Name is Rachel Corrie Does Not Tell the Whole Story: Don't Be Misled." One page has photos of six other women named Rachel who were killed by Palestinian suicide bombers. The ad was paid for by

Ed Herendeen says he expects, and welcomes, people to question what they see at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. "It's in the questioning of a work of art like My Name is Rachel Corrie that maybe you and I could have a conservation, even if we disagree," Herendeen says. "Theater is an opportunity to create a forum for a real dialogue, for a living conservation to take place."

Fears that theatergoers would stay away from the festival, were unfounded.. In fact, both ticket sales and donations are up this year.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival runs through July 29 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

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