One-Woman Show Tells Rachel Corrie’s Powerful Story

by Jean Schiffman

On March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie stood before an oncoming armored Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, protesting the demolition of an Arab home, and was killed.

“When I come back from Palestine I will probably have nightmares and constantly feel guilty for not being here,” activist Rachel Corrie, age 23, wrote in an email to her mother who was back home in Olympia, Washington, shortly before she died. “Coming here is one of the better things I’ve ever done,” she added.

In 2005, a one-woman play, adapted by the late British actor Alan Rickman and British journalist (now Guardian editor-in-chief) Katharine Viner directly from Rachel’s emails, letters and journal entries, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Rickman directed.

In 2010, Jonathan Kane directed the play in New York and Sun Valley, Idaho, featuring his longtime Sun Valley colleague Charlotte Hemmings, daughter of the late British actor David Hemmings. Now, Kane and his commercial company, Sawtooth Productions, bring “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” with Hemmings reprising the role, to the Magic Theatre.

“This is the most powerful play about peace that I’ve read,” says Kane, on the phone from New York. “Rachel was an amazing writer and idealist.” Staged in 20 countries including Israel and translated into 12 languages, it is indeed a testimony not just to Rachel Corrie’s bred-in-the-bone longing for justice for the oppressed but also to her intelligence and her writerly gifts. Whether she’s musing to herself in her diary or composing carefully considered messages to her anxious parents, and whether her topics are Dairy Queen or death or “Five People I Wish I’d Met Who Are Dead: Salvador Dali, Karl Jung, JFK, MLK, Josephine,” her talent is evident. The play, a monologue that concludes with a video of Rachel at age 10 at a fifth-grade press conference about world hunger, is at times poetic, at times gritty, both joyful and despairing, always impassioned. It is the story of her life, not her death.

The divisive Israeli-Palestinian conflict bled into the play's New York opening. In 2006, the New York Theater Workshop was scheduled to present the American premiere of the London production of “Rachel Corrie” but decided to “delay” the opening in reaction to various concerns within its theatrical community, a decision seen by many, including such outspoken theater artists as Tony Kushner, Vanessa Redgrave and Harold Pinter, as cowardice and censorship. (The theater’s managing director said the plan was simply to postpone, not cancel, the show; the New York opening was eventually presented that year by the Minetta Lane Theater.) Even now, according to Kane, people complain that the play does not present both sides of the issue. “My answer,” he says, “is, ‘This is Rachel’s story.’ You can’t refute that. She was under no obligation to look at both sides. She was just telling her story.” He thinks of Rachel as “incredibly idealistic…incredibly brave.” He adds, “I am Jewish… Anyone who thinks this play is anti-Semitic is off base.”

In 2003, upon arriving in Jerusalem, Rachel wrote in her journal, “The scariest thing about non-Jewish Americans [like herself] in talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of being or sounding anti-Semitic.… I think it’s important to draw a firm distinction between the policies of Israel, as a state, and Jewish people.” She was aware of very strong pressure to conflate the two. “I’m really new to talking about Israel-Palestine, so I don’t always know the political implications of my words,” she wrote.

Charlotte Hemmings knew nothing about Rachel Corrie when she first joined Jonathan Kane to work on the play. She soon met Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie—“They’re incredible and inspired me hugely”—and observed Rachel’s demeanor and mannerisms on YouTube. But she developed the character largely from the writing itself. “It’s so lyrical and playful and colorful,” she says, from Portland, Oregon, where she now lives and works by day as a graphic designer. She sees Rachel as an “intelligent, funny, quirky, questioning young woman from the get-go.” (At age 12 Rachel wrote, “I guess I’ve grown up a little, it’s all relative anyway, nine years is as long as forty years depending on how long you’ve lived. I stole that from my dad.”)

To memorize the 80-minute script, Hemmings rewrote every line. “Almost immediately I realized this really profound connection to her words,” she says, adding, “I know I’m not like Rachel, but I’m bringing her to life through me. That’s my job as an actor.”

For Kane, it is a dream come true to bring a show to the Magic Theatre; a longtime Sam Shepard fan, he’d always been drawn to San Francisco and the Magic. He acknowledges that the world order has changed somewhat since 2005 when the play first appeared in London. But, he says, “We’re still in the same situation. Our new president is unpredictable. Things could heat up [in Israel and Palestine] again.” He hopes to attract young audiences to the show. “The message is a powerful one of peace and hope,” he says.

Hemmings expects to experience even more of an internal fervor onstage this time around; since she last appeared as Rachel in 2010, she has had a baby, which has changed the way she thinks about her life, including how she reacts, in character, to emails back and forth to Cindy and Craig. “This is what political passion looks like,” she observes. “More than anything, Rachel has made me want to care about all sorts of politics: local, state, national. I feel like I owe it to her to care.

“If this play says it’s good to have that passion even if you’re putting your life on the line, then Rachel and this play will have done their job.”

Apr. 29 → May 14 (post-show talkbacks with
Rachel’s parents May 3 and 4)

Magic Theatre

Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco 441-8822