Don Shirley on another version of the Rachel Corrie story

When the Talkback Tops the Play. Crichton, Anyone?

News by Don Shirley  |  September 12, 2011
Samara Frame in "My Name is Rachel Corrie"

Last Thursday, a post-play panel discussion and audience talkback were much more exciting than the play that was being discussed.

After writing a feature article about My Name Is Rachel Corrie, I couldn’t make the Sept. 1 opening at the Theatricum Botanicum, because I was out of town. So upon my return, I saw the second performance on the first night after I returned – and the verbal fireworks that followed the show itself.

Susan Angelo’s staging, featuring Samara Frame as Rachel Corrie, is a capable production of an extremely limited and frustrating play. To recap for those who haven’t heard, it’s a solo about the young Corrie, an American who died in Gaza in 2003, while volunteering for a group that was trying to protect Palestinian civilians from Israeli military operations – which in turn were triggered by Hamas rocket attacks on Israel.

The script, compiled by British journalist Katharine Viner and actor Alan Rickman, using Corrie’s journals and emails, is remarkably Westerner-centric. It’s downright myopic in its attention only to this one American stranger in a strange land, rather than the people who are living through the conflict that surrounded her.

The play became controversial because it reflects Corrie’s largely one-sided sympathy for a Palestinian perspective, with hardly any reference at all to any Israeli perspective. But in fact not even the Palestinians speak for themselves here; they speak only indirectly, through their largely untutored American proxy.

Producers and other defenders of the play say its intent was not to dramatize the conflict between the larger warring groups. It was intended as a depiction of a young idealist who admits that she doesn’t know as much as she should – but who at least is trying to become involved in something bigger than the concerns of most Americans.

OK, that’s nice, I guess. But like most solo shows with endings we know in advance, My Name is Rachel Corrie isn’t especially dramatic. And it isn’t very original. If we were to count the number of plays about young American idealists that have been produced in the US, compared to the number of plays about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, I’m quite confident that the former would far outnumber the latter. Yet the latter subject is more obviously dramatic.

Gene Robbins, Jordan Elgrably and Steve Goldberg on the panel discussion following last week's performance of "My Name is Rachel Corrie", Photo by Sheana Ochoa, Levantine Cultural Center

Still, because of its setting, and because the play became unduly famous after its US premiere in 2006 was postponed amid a storm of controversy, Rachel Corrie raises false expectations that it has something serious to say about the Middle Eastern conflict.

Fortunately, that created the right conditions for panel discussions and audience talkbacks that are more rousing than the play itself – and, to the credit of the Theatricum Botanicum, that’s exactly what happened last Thursday.

After an introduction by Theatricum board member and actor Alan Blumenfeld, the assault on the play began from panelist Steve Goldberg, national vice chairman of the Zionist Organization of America. He said Corrie was “exploited after her death…to serve a propaganda purpose – propaganda to the point of political pornography.” He held her parents responsible – “She should have been pulled out [of Gaza]. They allowed this to happen.” Later he commented that if Mexico sent as many missiles into California as Hamas did into Israel, from Gaza, “we would turn Mexico into a parking lot.”

His chastising of Corrie’s parents was the cue for Corrie’s uncle by marriage, Gene Robbins, to rise out of the audience for a rebuttal – and for establishing his own credentials that he is Jewish and “grew up in a Zionist family.” Corrie was “an intelligent person,” he said. “She wasn’t exploited. There was no terrorist” in the house she was trying to protect from a bulldozer before she was killed. “It’s difficult for us to hear criticism of Israel, but we have to go back to international law…What Israel has been doing has been violating international law.”

This would soon lead to an exchange with audience member Harold Samuels, who later identified himself as having opened the Zionist Organization’s office in LA and having been a former director of development at the Anti-Defamation League. He angrily challenged Robbins’ interpretation of international law.

Other than Goldberg, the only actual panelist was Jordan Elgrably, executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center, who identified himself as “an Arab Jew.” He rejected Goldstein’s charge of “propaganda”, saying that the word applies to what governments or corporations do, not to what artists do. “Rachel Corrie doesn’t represent the…Palestinians per se.”

Samara Frame

One woman who identified herself as being Palestinian spoke up from the audience. She said she had spent the first half of her life in the Palestinian Territories and the second half in the US.  She said that she was confident that if Corrie had been around during the Nazi era, she would have sacrificed her life to defend victims of the Nazis.

Among the audience members who spoke, without naming themselves, was a self-identified “anarchist” who pointed out that we were on land that once belonged to the Chumash (I wasn’t sure if this was intended as a point for Israel or the Palestinians or neither).

Another man noted that large crowds of Israelis recently demonstrated against their own government over economic issues, that LA might have a supermarket strike soon, and that “what we really need is to unite as a class against our common enemy.”

Peter Alsop, who’s married to Theatricum Botanicum artistic director Ellen Geer, observed that “as a flaming liberal, I realize that I put no thought at all into ‘how do we stop people from bombing the cafes in Israel’?”

The Zionist Organization’s Goldberg at one point challenged Theatricum officials to justify their programming of Rachel Corrie by asking, rhetorically, “Would you put on a blackface show here for the purpose of debate?”

Earnestine Phillips, an active African American member of the Theatricum company, responded from the audience. In fact, she said, the Theatricum is considering doing an original adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a historically important book that some African Americans have interpreted as a troubling example of “blackface” style.

Samara Frame

Geer herself largely watched the proceedings silently, but at one point she approached the fervently passionate Goldberg, so that she was looking into his face with only a few inches between them. Because her back was to the audience, I couldn’t see what she was doing at that moment, so later I asked her. “I wanted to see his eyes,” she replied, “so he would calm down.” I wasn’t able to ask Goldberg later whether her technique had worked.

Geer did, however, speak to the group at the end, noting that “controversy is a good thing. It helps you thrive.” I can’t say that the discussion was all that illuminating, but at least it was animated, with conflict crackling from stage to audience and back again – the sort of exchange that can happen in contentious plays but didn’t happen in Rachel Corrie itself.

I’m not sure that it will happen at the remaining panel discussions. The list of official panelists that was inserted into the programs last Thursday didn’t include anyone who was as likely to dispute the ideology behind the play as much as Goldberg did last Thursday. However, the list was “subject to change,” according to the insert, and of course challenging questions and comments might come from audience members, too.

At any rate, I applaud the Theatricum for holding at least one politically charged talkback. And may I suggest that the Theatricum might want to consider a play that provides a more substantive viewpoint of what’s happening in the Middle East than can be found in Rachel Corrie. For example, Goliath, by Karen Hartman, which I saw at the Open Fist’s new play festival in the summer of 2009, is about Israelis and Palestinians themselves, as opposed to visiting Americans, and it’s also remarkably open-minded and even-handed. I’m sure there are other examples, if the Theatricum looks far enough.

My Name is Rachel Corrie and audience talkbacks, Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Thursday through Sept. 22, plus Wednesday Sept. 21, 8 pm. 310-455-3723.