New York City is known throughout the world as a bastion of free artistic expression. That is, apparently, unless the art is about the struggle of the Palestinian people.
Or at least that was the message sent by the New York Theatre Workshop. The off-Broadway theater had been scheduled to host the U.S. debut of the play titled “My Name is Rachel Corrie.” The play, which already debuted in London to rave reviews, is a one-woman soliloquy based on the e-mails and writings of slain activist and peace martyr Rachel Corrie to her parents. However, the NYTW suddenly decided to “indefinitely postpone” the play.
Rachel Corrie was a 23-year-old woman from Olympia, Wash. She attended Evergreen State College, where she studied the arts and international relations. Like many other American youth, over the course of her short life she embarked on a journey of self-discovery and learning that led to her politicization. During her senior year of college, she took time off to travel to Rafah, in the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip, after initiating a sister-city project in Olympia. She volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement, which carried out activities in the Gaza Strip as human rights observers and engaged in nonviolent direct action.
On March 16, 2003, Corrie and six other ISM members were trying to stop the Israeli Defense Force from demolishing homes and farmland along the Egyptian border of Gaza, in violation of international law. Armed with orange reflective-striped vests and bullhorns, these “human shields” were no match for the might of the D-9 Caterpillar bulldozers which an American company had sold to the IDF, or for the IDF’s reckless incompetence. The Israeli forces removed the ordinary safeguard of human guides on the ground due to “fear of sniper fire,” but did not deem this a threat to disrupt the demolitions.
When Corrie attempted to obstruct a bulldozer from the path of a home belonging to the family with which she was staying, the driver of the bulldozer lifted up the ground she was standing on, lifting her up to eye level before crushing her under the rubble. It ran over her and then backed over her again. Her last words were “my back is broken,” before being taken to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
“My Name is Rachel Corrie” takes its name from one of Corrie’s journal entries. Although it was initially the idea of actor and director Alan Rickman and Guardian features editor Katharine Viner, they decided after seeing her writings that her words spoke for themselves. They edited the play, but Corrie is credited as the playwright and her parents own the rights to her words. The play gives great insight into Corrie’s journey. Her journal entries, e-mails and letters to her parents reveal a mix of political awakening and the ordinary human struggles of a young woman searching for her role in shaping a better world.
The play sold out two runs in London, and was to open next in New York on March 22. However, in February the postponement was announced. NYTW Artistic Director James Nicola denies that the delay is permanent, but admits that “Talking around and listening in 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.”
It seems the ultra-right in the U.S. and Israel have created a culture of silence in which all discussion of Israel’s suppression of Palestinian rights is either ignored or shouted down as “anti-Semitism,” even if the speaker is Jewish.
Theatergoers and advocates of artistic freedom have rightly protested this thinly veiled censorship. Not only supporters of the Palestinian people’s right to peace and self-determination, but anyone who believes in free speech should raise a loud, clear voice, and demand that the NYTW proceed with bringing Rachel Corrie’s message to the stage. She was a bright and gifted young writer, and although she is no longer here, we should allow her words to speak for themselves.
Brandon Slattery (email@example.com) is a young artist in Philadelphia.