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The pen may prove mightier than the word

Friday, March 24, 2006

By MAKEBA SCOTT HUNTER
HERALD NEWS

Despite the cancellation of a theater production based on the writings of the late human-rights activist, some 1,200 people packed into Harlem’s Riverside Church Wednesday night for an alternate production – pulled together in two weeks by friends and supporters — that celebrated Corrie’s life and protested perceived censorship.

“This is a powerful outcry, not just by people who love and know Rachel and know the work in Palestine, but anybody who champions free speech and who champions a plethora and diversity of ideas and opinions,” said Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, to which Corrie belonged.

Corrie was 23 when she was crushed to death under an Israeli bulldozer as she stood between it and the home of a Palestinian family. She had been living in the city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip for nearly two months as a member of the ISM, which sent Westerners to the Palestinian territories to serve as “human shields” against what they termed Israeli aggression in the settlements.

Corrie’s story could have ended when she died on March 16, 2003,embraced by a Jewish ISM colleague among rubble. But thanks to the efforts of her family, London’s Royal Court Theatre and Corrie herself, it was just beginning. The budding writer recorded her experiences in journal entries and e-mails she sent home to her parents in Olympia, Wash., expressing horror at the events she witnessed on a daily basis: bulldozed homes, children killed, destroyed food supplies, border crossings shut down.

“Disbelief and horror is what I feel,” she wrote to her mother 17 days before her death. “I am disappointed that this is the base
reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it. This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world.”

Her words — passionate, prophetic and wise beyond her years – were incorporated into a play celebrating her life called “My Name is Rachel Corrie.” The play was set to make its American debut at the New York Theatre Workshop after a successful run in London. However, a month before its scheduled opening on Wednesday, NYTW theater director James Nicola announced its postponement, sparking accusations of censorship from members of the theater community, human-rights activists and Corrie supporters, among others.

“My initial reaction was a combination of disgust and apathy,” said Tom Wallace, one of the organizers of Wednesday’s event.”Because, in general, we know there is a very strong voice in the U.S. that drowns out all other voices on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even somebody as dedicated as Rachel.”

Nicola defended his decision in a statement posted on the NYTW Web site, saying, “We carried out our routine pre-production
research” and found “many distorted accounts of the actual circumstances of Rachel’s death that had resulted in a highly charged, vituperative, and passionate controversy.”

Nicola said that while local Jewish leaders were among those consulted, their response was not the determining factor in postponing the play. “No outside group has ever, or will ever, participate in the artistic decision-making process at NYTW,” he wrote.

As a result of the show’s indefinite postponement, its supporters banded together and created a presentation called “Rachel’s Words.”

“Rachel is allowed to speak for herself,” Wallace said. “People can take from it what they want.”

Those words finally made their American premiere Wednesday night. The four-hour production combined video footage of Corrie, musical performances and contributions from Maya Angelou and musician Patti Smith. Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie; U.S. Senate candidate Jonathan Tasini; and Palestinian-American comic Maysoon Zayid were among those on hand.

Corrie’s story resonated with its audience.

Kara Young, 19, of Harlem, admitted that before the performance, “I wasn’t really aware of what was going on with Rachel Corrie.”
Afterward, she said, “I literally put myself in her position and felt like I was crushed by a bulldozer.”

Said ISM’s Shapiro, “This is a powerful message to all theater owners not to be afraid, not to shy away, not to be cowards when
people might say, ‘Oh, that shouldn’t be said’ or ‘those words shouldn’t be heard.’ I think this is more powerful than anything that
could have been done.”

For more information on Rachel Corrie, go to www.rachelswords.org

Reach Makeba Scott Hunter at (973) 569-7154 or
[email protected]