I was always under the impression that theater at its best was meant to provoke, challenge and even shock its viewers. In some of the greatest plays to grace the stage, we are presented with controversial, even outrageous ideas. That is what we expect. But apparently, the New York Theatre Workshop got more than it bargained for when it agreed to mount the Royal Court’s smash play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie for its New York debut this month.
Given, International Solidarity Moviement activisit Rachel Corrie, despite her tragic death, IS a controversial figure. Not everyone feel she died a hero’s death when an Israeli army tractor ran her down. Some people view her as an apologist for Palestinian terror. Given, New York City is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Tel Aviv. And many of them are ardent supporters of Israel who might’ve found this play distressing to say the least.
But since when is that reason to duck out on controversy with this pretentious and feeble excuse of a statement (as quoted in the NY Times):
The production, a hit at the Royal Court Theater in London last year, had been tentatively scheduled to start performances at the New York Theater Workshop in the East Village on March 22. But yesterday, James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work.
“The uniform answer we got was that the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy,” he said.
In particular, the recent electoral upset by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, and the sickness of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, had made “this community very defensive and very edgy,” Mr. Nicola said, “and that seemed reasonable to me.”
Sound the buzzer on this guy–WRONG! Hamas’ victory and Sharon’s illness are absolutely FEEBLE excuses for running away from this play as fast as your little legs will carry you. If you use those as valid excuses, when would there ever be an appropriate time to mount a production? When the messiah comes? Then, of course there would be world peace and you wouldn’t need the play!
Here’s another jaw-dropping statement from the supposedly “fearless” artistic director:
“It seemed as though if we proceeded, we would be taking a stand we didn’t want to take,” he said.
In other words, if Nicola HAD produced Rachel Corrie he’d be forced to take a position defending the ideas she represented and he simply wasn’t prepared to do that. PATHETIC. Of course, when you produce a play you defend the ideas of the play’s subject. If that bothers you, then you can try to produce another play that represents the other side of the conflict. But don’t back out of Rachel Corrie because you can’t stand the heat of the debate. That’s an artistically bankrupt response to political conflict.
Nicola’s statement to Playbill is slicker but still distressing for those who believe in a theater of ideas:
“…I have worked to help our audiences and our community engage in an open and civil discourse on issues of our time. Our purpose for being is to create the most conducive place for these conversations; we have chosen the artists who lead these conversations with great care,” NYTW artistic director James C. Nicola told Playbill.com in a statement.
“We always try to minimize the distractions around the production so our constituency can hear the artist’s voice. This takes a great deal of planning and listening to accomplish. In the less than two months we had to mount the proposed production of the Royal Court’s My Name Is Rachel Corrie, we found that there was a strong possibility that a number of factions, on all sides of a political conflict, could use the production as a platform for their own agendas. We were not confident that we had the time to create an environment where the art could be heard independent of the political issues associated with it.”
The italicized portion of Nicola’s last sentence illustrates perfectly the tone-deaf nature of his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and this play in particular. Of course the art of My Name is Rachel Corrie can never be heard independent of the political issues involved precisely because Rachel Corrie was a political activist. Politics and this conflict were her life. She (at least in her own eyes) gave her life for her political ideas. If you cannot envision a production that embraces at least some of the ideas she represented then you don’t deserve the right to mount the play. You’d only make a bollocks of in the attempt. No wonder Alan Rickman is not returing Nicola’s phone calls.
So if I were Rickman, the fine actor and writer who created the play with Guardian journalist Katharine Viner, I’d say to good riddance to Nicola and NY Theater Workshop. Instead, look for New York theater folk who are ready to embrace this challenge and present this play to a New York audience, warts and all. It won’t be easy. As Nicola said, there will be extreme factional responses and controversy. People will picket your performances and God forbid some idiots might try even worse. But the world needs to learn more about Rachel Corrie and what she represented even if we disagree with her.
The blood of the Israelis and Palestinians killed in this conflict demands that the world take notice and try to do something to stop it. Rachel Corrie tried. Doesn’t New York, the alleged theater capital of the world, deserve to hear her words on stage??