As you know, Rochester prides itself on being a cultural Mecca, not least because of its theater offerings. The city also is proud of its educational institutions – take recent PR bragging that our metro area is the functional equivalent of a “college town,” i.e. we’ve got a high student-civilian ratio. And of course, art and education get on famously together, as in Geva’s production of Inherit the Wind, which mounts a defense of freedom of thought and expression.
It’s great to live in a metaphorical Mecca. But today my cultural thoughts are turning not so much in that direction as toward the real world of Gaza – more precisely, to a theatrical production that, through the words of a young American who lost her life fighting injustice, showcases the daily tragedies of life in occupied Palestine and raises intriguing questions about free speech in America today.
I’m speaking of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play produced by well-known actor Alan Rickman that had a successful run in London but just got the axe by the New York Theatre Workshop. (The Workshop’s director said the decision was a response “a very edgy situation” brought on by Ariel Sharon’s illness and the Hamas victory in recent Palestinian elections. Talk about weasel words. In artistic terms, such cowardice cuts the Big Apple down to the size of a sour cherry.)
Background shouldn’t be necessary here; if we had real independent commercial media here, Corrie would have long ago become a household name. But to review: In March 2003, the 23-year-old, who’d traveled from her home in Washington state to Palestine with other international solidarity volunteers, was crushed to death under a US-built Caterpillar tractor in Gaza. Corrie had been standing in the bulldozer’s path to stop the destruction of yet another Palestinian home in Rafah, a Gaza community on the Egyptian border.
Corrie didn’t present herself as a plaster saint. But her story has already inspired thousands of peace activists and certainly resonates among young Palestinians and Israelis. Likewise, her story would draw attention here in Rochester and other parts of Upstate. So how about it, Rochester theater aficionados and friends? Will you rise to the challenge?
Take a page from some New York City activists who are planning an informal production for March 22 at Riverside Church. Here’s what their webpage (www.rachelswords.org) has to say, as of 3/11: “An array of actors, academics, and activists will read the writings of Rachel Corrie and address how vital it is for the arts to provide a platform for difficult discourse, something that is greatly needed on the issue of Israel and Palestine. The current line up includes Maysoon Zayid, Kia Corthron, Malachy McCourt, Najla Said, Kathleen Chalfant, Betty Shamieh, Jonathan Tasini and Anthony Arnove. We are awaiting confirmation from many more who have expressed interest. We hope that ‘Rachel’s Words’ will provide a burst of light in the pervasive climate of fear and challenge to free speech that is increasingly prevalent in our society and open the door to many other silenced voices.”
Other groups around the country are staging similar events even earlier – on March 16, the third anniversary of Corrie’s death. You’ll find a growing list of these events linked to the URL above.
How wonderful it would be to find Rochester on the list. I guess it will depend on whether Rochester can shed its habitual stage fright about this thematic material - and take the cue.