Controversial reading gets kudos, not protests

ASHLAND — After being scrubbed from the Oregon Stage Works summer lineup, the politically charged play "My Name is Rachel Corrie" last night got its first showing to a sold-out house and, despite its harsh criticism of Israel, got kudos for its broader message of humanity and peace.

"It's no wonder that certain people didn't want her words to be heard here. It shows her humanity, as well as her understanding of our complicity in the horrors that are going on there (Gaza) and our ignorance of it," said Rivers Brown, after viewing the dramatic reading at the tiny Newandart Gallery.

The reading, alternately the charming ramblings of a young student and the outrage of a protestor living with Palestinians, was written from Rachael Corrie's emails and journals before she died in March 2003, at age 23, beneath a bulldozer of the Israeli Defense Force.

It was first performed at the Royal Court Theater in London and was controversial enough to have its run cancelled at the normally bold New York Theater Workshop.

Artistic director Peter Alzado of OSW scratched the show because of persisting questions over factuality — whether Corrie's death was accidental or the IDF intentionally killed her, as her supporters charge.

As part of the group Advocates for Israel, some local Jews, including Gary Acheatal, had criticized OSW for slating the play, noting that she could be viewed as defending a terrorist stronghold, rather than protecting Palestinian homes against demolition.

However, Rabbi David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash said the organized Jewish community met with Alzado, supported the production as a means of opening dialog and has not engaged in any "censorship or suppression." Zaslow said the play is about a young woman trying to work for peace, but the controversial part is the narrative in the last minute, which makes it clear that Corrie was clearly visible to the Israeli driver, who intentionally ran her over.

Activist Gerald Cavanagh said, "A lot of people are tired of the bullying of people who dare to criticize Israel's policies. Peter (Alzado) was in a bad spot and you can't convince me that there wasn't a lot of pressure, overt and covert, to suppress free speech.

"It's from Americans who support Israeli policies no matter what and if you criticize Israel, you are anti-Semitic," Cavanagh said.

Nell Geisslinger, an OSF actress who played the title role, said, "Everyone has the right to their opinion in this country, but the fact is, this play had a right to be performed. She was a young girl searching for life experience and adventure "¦ and now people around the world know her name because she stood against oppression."

Audience member Jim Bowne said the play "really impressed me with its authenticity and for conveying what we don't get in the press — the injustice that we are paying for with our tax dollars. It was painful."

The play, which will get a second and final showing at 8 tonight at Newandart on A Street, features a vigorous, often humorous treatment of Corrie's adolescence and college years, in which her character took shape — leading to stark realization of war's horrors in her final months.

Rather than terrorists, Corrie found her Palestinian hosts to be people of kindness and dignity, who daily dealt with being shot at and having their homes, wells and greenhouses bulldozed and having "their lives and welfare completely strangled," according to her words in the play.

Director Geoffrey Blaisdell said the play "does place Israel in a rather unflattering light," resulting in a history of protests and cancellations. But "I said you're welcome to do that. I can't stop them. It's a collection of letters and journal entries and there's no reason why it shouldn't be presented as a legitimate experience."

The importance of the play, Blaisdell added, is that it is anti-violence and anti-war and "she saw a superior military force being used against a voiceless people, and she wanted to help give them a voice. She would have gone anywhere, not just Gaza, for the voiceless."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland.

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