Love v. acceptance is a battlefield in Jacaranda Collective's 'My Name is Rachel Corrie'
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
Candle wax. Stolen kisses. Raspberries. Mountain Dew. Chapstick. Baby books. These are not words you'd expect to hear when seeing a play about a pro-Palestinian activist who travels to a war ridden Gaza Strip. Yet, that is the unexpected joy found in Jacaranda Collective's My Name is Rachel Corrie. Immersed in bundles of delicate conflict with pockets of hope, this is a story about a young woman who dreams, searches, and finds herself faced with death, the events of which have been speculated for years.
Its plot and production history have been threaded by controversy. It originally premiered in London in 2005, directed by co-editor Alan Rickman (along with Katherine Viner), with a planned run at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2006 before it came to a screeching halt. Despite NYTW's established reputation of intentionally ruffling feathers, cited inaccuracies found in Corrie's stories and not wanting to provide false representation of her voice led to the cancellation which did not go over well. The play made it to Off-Broadway elsewhere that same year to mixed reviews and once again in 2015.
Rachel Corrie's death has also been subject to incessant scrutiny. Rachel Corrie was killed by a bulldozer on March 16, 2003 while trying to protect a home from being destroyed in Rafah. A debate emerged whether the operator of the bulldozer saw the protester or not. Corrie's parents filed several lawsuits, and after no fault was found from Israeli authorities, an appeal case was brought to Israel's Supreme Court which was also denied. Given Corrie and the play's track record, My Name is Rachel Corrie is a bold, commendable choice for Jacaranda Collective's premiere production.
Compiled from emails and journal entries, the play springs to life from Corrie and ultimately belongs to her. Directed by artistic director Sam Bianchini, starring associate artistic director Halie Robinson, and with a predominantly female production team, this ninety minute solo performance fine tunes many creative elements to live up to such hype. Madeline Pell's lighting designs provide an array of playing spaces for Robinson, both warm and cold.
Robinson embodies Corrie with an innate theatre kid energy: exuberant, talking a mile a minute, and eager, yet hesitant to share her thoughts with others. She's a list maker, poet, daughter, sister, Pat Benatar lover, a bright, young upstart that you take a liking to. Seeing Corrie's journal perfectly emulates her spirit as scattered, worn down with love, and many ideas bursting out the seams.
The whole world is in front of Corrie from the moment we meet her. She recants her birth up to her present as a senior at Evergreen State College. As such a prolific writer, her words often land stronger than she seems. "His life was skyscrapers. My life took place on a much smaller scale," she says when discussing an ex, "Now we are proportionate." Her words were meant to be heard on a stage, and with Robinson's ever endearing energy, they're able to fill up the wide, deceivingly simple canvas of Emily Smith's creation.
Her words continue to leave you winded, especially biting with jabs that reflect our current political administration. Mentions of walls, children's lives lost that are unreported and concealed by the media, and who holds the reins in this chaos: "It is the leaders who make war." Corrie's concerns turn into community organizing and we're swept away by her budding confidence and thorough research of Palestinian tensions, Israeli army forces, and her group, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).
My Name is Rachel Corrie portrays Corrie as heroic and wavers a tense line of the white savior narrative. She's open about her privilege admitting once in the Gaza Strip she can afford water, stays with nice families, has access to email, and could get on a plane tomorrow if she wanted. As the play progresses, we lose more of the young woman shown in the beginning. There's not many moments of prolonged self-doubt or reexamination of her beliefs, or whether she should have made the trip at all. It seems her acts are immortalized in the play before she even makes them.
While dealing with Corrie's memories in a respectful manner is understood, it can be difficult to translate a legacy onstage. Plays are built on tension, conflict, and characters being complicated rather than one dimensional. Corrie's writings are intrinsically intriguing, but it seems like the conflicts exist outside of herself and the play doesn't allow for those messy, not so well organized moments of inner reflection to truly live this experience through her eyes.
And while it's possible Corrie didn't put such musings to paper, there's no reconciliation with her position as a non-Jewish American in these events. In "The Forgotten Rachels", Tom Gross discusses how six Jewish women also named Rachel were killed around the same time as Corrie due to this Arab-Israeli conflict. While the article shows a clear bias against Corrie, it mentions how her American status caused nationwide notoriety whereas other women who had more to lose saw little to none news coverage. The play makes its own choice of how Corrie's death panned out which is consistent with the depiction of her trajectory.
Agreeing with her politics and practices or neither, Corrie's story deserves to be told in a world where we are still playing catch up in knowing female, historic figures. It's actively guided under Bianchini's direction accelerating through poetic passages and abrupt location changes. While the journey seems to lag in Corrie's final days, there are moments interspersed that are engaging. And when that end comes, it's a jolt in more ways than one.
My Name is Rachel Corrie is a mixed bag of memories, as divided as Corrie's critics. It leaves you with a chosen image of Corrie, but doesn't give us the whole picture. We're left to sift through her past and form our own conclusions.