Montreal tackles the much-hyped biographical play about a martyred activist, My Name Is Rachel Corrie
Adrienne Wong doesn’t usually plead with answering machines for her acting gigs. But after reading My Name Is Rachel Corrie in 2005, the seasoned actress dialled up her colleague at Vancouver’s Neworldtheatre, Marcus Youssef, and left a lengthy message about why she should be considered for the title role. Her unorthodox audition "speaks to the power of this play," she explains. "Reading these words incited action in me, and I think that’s part of its gift. It’s a door opening that you can walk through, so it’s hard to just sit back in your seat."
Wong isn’t alone in her passionate response to this play – it’s also what motivated Neworld and Teesri Duniya’s co-production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie in Montreal, set to open tonight, Dec. 6, at Monument-National. The show consists of emails and diary entries from Rachel Corrie, an American activist whose death made headlines in March 2003, when she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to block the demolition of a Palestinian home. Supporters like Yasser Arafat immediately heralded her as a martyr. Detractors labelled her naive, if not an outright traitor.
Shortly after her death, Corrie’s writings began to surface in the media. British actor Alan Rickman was one of the millions who read her words over his tea and toast. Emailing from the press junket for his upcoming film, Sweeney Todd, he described the experience. "With Rachel Corrie’s words, it was the power of observation and language that was, ironically, vibrantly alive." Like Wong, he felt compelled to act.
Aided by newspaper editor Katharine Viner and with the Corrie family’s blessings, Rickman moulded nearly 200 pages of the activist’s words into a 70-minute, one-woman show. He also directed the initial production at the Royal Court Theatre, which opened in April 2005 to rave reviews, despite Corrie’s continued status as a controversial figure.
Then, the following February, the New York Theatre Workshop abruptly postponed the North American premiere, citing concerns over political fallout. Rickman cried censorship, and the play became a cause célèbre. In December 2006, the debate landed in Canada when Toronto’s CanStage Theatre reneged on its publicly stated desire to feature the play in its upcoming season. Like a disputed border, the line between the play’s art and its politics now seems to shift, depending on who you ask.
As a result, the play’s reputation arrived in Montreal well in advance of tonight’s debut. "I think there’s an excitement about the piece," admits director Sarah Stanley, "but I’m not sure how much has to do with the play." To combat the hype, she and collaborating director Youssef emphasize a more objective approach, examining "what [Corrie] actually said and what her life has come to mean."
Past productions have taken a traditional tack on the material. The audience meets Corrie as a character and follows her from her childhood in Olympia, Washington, to the Gaza Strip. Along the way, they watch as her altruism morphs into the tragic flaw that propels her toward her demise. Rickman notes, "The narrative is a strong and simple journey: A girl from a secure, small-town background goes to a country which is unknown, dangerous and epic in its implications."
Stanley and Youssef’s version, however, puts two distinct twists on this model. First, instead of choosing another blond, fair-skinned actress to play Corrie, they cast Wong, who is Asian-Canadian. Second, their production highlights the play’s storytelling elements by staging it in the round.
With these artistic decisions, the directors hope to create some distance between the poetic beauty of Corrie’s words and the politically charged events they describe. That way, when theatregoers of all stripes witness Corrie’s many peccadilloes – her messiness, chain-smoking and compulsive list-making, among others – they’ll relate to her as a human being, and ultimately mourn the loss of her potential.
In the end, though, My Name Is Rachel Corrie cannot escape its history, and the Montreal production will be scrutinized just as closely as its predecessors. Even Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, will be attending the Dec. 9 show and participating in a special panel discussion.
"It’s tricky when I think about her parents," says Wong of reality’s latest intrusion into the play. "I want to be able to approach this performance the way you would approach dancing in your bedroom to your favourite song. So that there’s a freedom in it, a vulnerability and an expression that comes when no one’s watching. The problem is that I want to find that feeling in a place where everybody is watching." (Brett Hooton)
My Name Is Rachel Corrie
At Monument-National (1182 St-Laurent), until Dec. 22
As Corrie’s legacy lives on through art, Hour gets rare testimonials from her friends and family about the facts behind her death
Crushed to death in 2003 by an Israeli military bulldozer in the town of Rafah, Palestine, located on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, activist Rachel Corrie has become an international symbol for the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Amidst the violent reality of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, hundreds of international peace activists have travelled to the occupied territories in recent years, many involved with a global network called the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).
From across the globe, including from Montreal, activists converged on Palestine for a series of protest campaigns based on non-violent direct action between 2002 and 2004.
ISM campaigns focused on issues including the construction of Israel’s "separation barrier," an eight-metre-high concrete wall running throughout the West Bank of Palestine – declared illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2005 – and the arbitrary demolition by the Israeli military of Palestinian homes, numbering 5,000, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
Through non-violent protests and direct actions, members of the ISM attempted to confront the daily operations of the largest military in the Middle East, bringing international media attention to the apartheid policies facing the Palestinians, while also placing internationals in the line of fire, the front line on which Rachel Corrie died in March 2003.
Corrie died defending a Palestinian home in the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, sparking little response from the U.S. government. In March 2003 I interviewed Greg Schnabel, an activist with the ISM on the ground in the Gaza Strip who was a first-hand witness to Corrie’s death.
"Rachel, I and six other members of our group went to the scene and attempted to place ourselves between the bulldozers and a group of houses in Rafah facing demolition," explains Schnabel. "The Israeli bulldozer approached her from more than 10 metres away. As it finally reached Rachel, it pushed the ground up from beneath her feet, sucking her under the bulldozer," describes Schnabel.
"At this point you could see Rachel struggling to get away. The bulldozer continued to drive forward as we were screaming, then the bulldozer drove completely over her with the blade to the ground, then backed-up and reversed over Rachel once more, then quickly left. We ran over to Rachel and simply held her hand until she lost consciousness and died."
Rachel Corrie’s family in Olympia, Washington, continue to campaign for justice and an independent international investigation. "It’s now over five years since Rachel was killed, and no one thinks about it more than our family," explains Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother. "Even though many, many people care, there is still a great deal of misinformation. After a couple of years people assume that it was taken care of, they aren’t aware of the ongoing efforts to seek justice in Rachel’s case."
To this day, no Israeli official, soldier or military unit has been charged or sanctioned for the death of Rachel Corrie, as Israeli military forces continue to occupy the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the occupation, which continues to garner diplomatic support from the governments of Canada and the U.S. (Stefan Christoff)