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Home > Archives > Sept_Oct_2007 > Peace Café Busload Takes in West Virginia Production of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie”
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2007, pages 16, 18 Special Report
Peace Café Busload Takes in West Virginia Production of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie”
By Jamal Najjab

Anne Marie Nest gave a stunning performance as Rachel Corrie (Ron Blun Photography Courtesy American Theater Festival).

PEACE ACTIVIST and businessman Andy Shallal arranged for 35 participants of the Peace Café in Washington, DC to travel by bus to Shepherdstown, WV on July 8 to see the Contemporary American Theater Festival’s (CATF) production of “My Name is Rachel Corrie.”
The play has created controversy wherever it has been performed, and Shepherdstown was no exception. An CATF board member resigned over the selection of the play, several theater patrons canceled their subscriptions, and the office of CATF producing director Ed Herendeen was flooded with letters urging the board members to remove the play from the annual festival. Despite all the controversy, the show did go on and, to CATF’s surprise, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” did not hurt ticket sales. In fact, Herendeen told The Washington Post, sales were up 3 percent compared to last summer, with donations already up $21,000 above last year.
The play is based on Rachel’s diaries from age 12 right up to a day or so before March 16, 2003, when she was crushed to death in Gaza by an Israeli military Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer. Working as an International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer, she was attempting to prevent it from demolishing a Palestinian home.
Palestinians revere her as a martyr in their fight for self-determination, and the late Edward Said praised her actions as “heroic and dignified at the same time.” For many Israelis, she was naïve at best, entering into a war zone without really understanding the situation. Some Americans paint her as a traitor and/or a collaborator with terrorists, and they placed ads in the playbill erroneously claiming her death was an accident that occurred when bulldozers were searching for terrorist tunnels.
En route from DC to West Virginia, most Peace Café members said they were waiting until after the play to decide how they felt about Rachel. Some participants had seen the play in New York City and were coming to compare this performance or to participate in the discussion group after the play. Others came along for the ride.
That afternoon American actress Anne Marie Nest, who portrayed Rachel in the one-woman play in the round, was surrounded by a full house. The stage setting was minimal, with a rectangular artificial stone in the center of the stage serving as a bed in Washington state encircled with discarded clothes, and later as a structure in Gaza.
Nest told Rachel’s all-too-brief life story by way of her diary and e-mails. Her passionate performance conveyed Rachel’s hope for the future and her belief that her actions could help protect families in Rafah and keep their homes intact.
This audience member felt that Gaza would have been just one stop in the life of a person who would have faced and attempted to resolve many of the world’s conflicts—if that life had not ended so tragically. The play ended with a video of 10-year-old Rachel reading in front of her school’s fifth grade “Press Conference on World Hunger” her dream for a better world in which world hunger is wiped out by the year 2000.
Following the play, those who had seen it before were asked if they discerned any differences. Mimi Conway, one of the Peace Café’s founders, said the British actress who performed in New York was more polished—but that, perhaps as a result, it was harder for her to portray a young American student full of idealism. Nest’s performance made Rachel Corrie’s words really come to life. “I felt the New York performance was too political,” Conway said, “but this performance really captured the spirit of a young person.”
Two women I spoke with had just come back from a political fact-finding trip to Israel and the West Bank. One, Pam Rasmussen, had seen the play twice before, and both found the West Virginia presentation far more emotional than the other, due to the fact that they now fully understood the horror of life under Israel’s brutal occupation.
Theatergoers were then asked to sit in a large tent outside the theater. The Peace Café’s three founders—Ari Roth, artistic director of the Jewish Community Center’s Theater J, Conway, and Shallal—welcomed the 100 or so people to the discussion group. Rachel’s parents had come to see the play the previous day, Shallal told the group, and during a panel discussion afterwards, Cindy Corrie had told the crowd that it was a hopeful play—not happy, but hopeful. Dr. Samir, whose house Rachel Corrie lost her life trying to save, also was on that day’s panel, Shallal said.
Noting that art has a unique way of affecting politics, Roth asked the group to ask themselves, “who was Rachel Corrie?” Shallal asked participants at each table to discuss among themselves their impressions of the play.
After 20 minutes, the entire group came together and a representative from each table expressed what had been said. One woman told the group that she was thrilled and moved by the play. Another man stated that he had not found the play balanced in its portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In response, Bob Griss, a longtime Peace Café participant, recalled that years ago he had attended a performance of the “Diary of Anne Frank” in New York City and didn’t remember anyone complaining about that play not being balanced. “‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ did not represent the Nazi side of the conflict,” Griss pointed out.
“This is not a balanced play,” the Iraqi-born Shallal agreed. “Most great plays are not balanced—that’s theater! For us coming from the Middle East, we find the media here not balanced on the other side.”
A Jewish couple, Steve and Annette Spector, also longtime Peace Café goers, told of their daughter’s experiences as an ISM volunteer in Gaza. Referring to the volunteers, the mother stated that “no one has an agenda other than to make sense of what is going on over there.”
Not happy with this statement, CATF boardmember Stanley C. Marinoff spoke—first letting the group know he had not seen the play and in protest would never see it. He had read the play’s script, My Name Is Rachel Corrie (available from the AET Book Club), and said a Mother Jones article proved that it was impossible for the operator of the bulldozer to see Rachel before he ran over her. He went on to say that “the ISM is a front for Hamas and its terrorist operations. It is not a pure movement.”
Another man who stated that he, too, hadn’t seen the play began to criticize it. At that point, Roth cut him off and chastised them both for refusing to see the play. “I wish you could have left your male egos behind and shown up at the play and taken it all in,” he told them, “to see the transformation of this girl into a woman. Seeing all of that, we have to respond and take notice.”
“Balanced?” Pam Rasmussen asked. “No one is balanced. We owe it to ourselves to experience a slice of this beautiful woman’s life. She was so committed to her cause and was a true communicator. Apathy is the true enemy and so many of our young people are so apathetic. She was willing to put her convictions on the line.”
Elise T. Baach, another CATF boardmember, told the group she was pleased to hear such a candid discussion, adding that the controversy surrounding their decision to include the play in the festival was a “painful experience, but the outcome shows it was worth it.”
Nest was also in the audience, and before she left to prepare for another performance she told the crowd, “I went into theater in the hopes it would effect change. If my performance has opened one person’s heart, I have done my job.”
Herendeen concluded the discussion by observing that “This play created a living dialogue. The concerns raised by the board created a stronger board. That is what this play did before it was even performed.”
Jamal Najjab is administrative director for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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