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my name is rachel corrie: a life resurrected

eleanor hadley kershaw

British-born, Eleanor Hadley Kershaw is currently based in Brussels, facilitating communications with IETM - international network for contemporary performing arts/réseau international des arts du spectacle. She has a Foundation Diploma in Art, Media and Design and a BA in English from Cambridge.

Adrienne Wong, My Name is Rachel Corrie
Adrienne Wong, My Name is Rachel Corrie

photo Itai Erdal
The slight young woman’s intelligent eyes lock onto mine as she perches on her upholstered white office chair, knees drawn up to her chest. I feel as though she and I are alone in the room as she tells me how, when she was younger, her mother told her that she thought she might be a better mom if she took her children to church. “This may have been a scare tactic.” The audience’s laughter snaps my connection with Wong and she swivels on her chair to address the person next to me.

Wong, who has introduced herself to each audience member personally as we entered the tiny blackbox space, is speaking the monologue edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner from the diaries, emails and letters of Rachel Corrie following her death in Rafah, Gaza in 2003. The audience are probably aware of the circumstances of Corrie’s death: while protesting about the demolition of Palestinian homes, she was crushed by an armoured bulldozer operated by the Israel Defense Forces. But this performance allows us to get to know the woman behind the newsprint, extracts of which are projected in thin strips on each wall of the Havana Theatre as we enter.

The intimate, in-the-round setting of Wong’s performance painfully draws attention to her physicality in the space just a metre or two away from us. Four single lines of, at most, fifteen chairs form a square around the performance area; I can see the expression of every person present. Through Wong’s energetic portrayal of the powerfully evocative words of Corrie as a girl, we are invited right into her messy teenager’s bedroom and inner thoughts, witnessing her childish self-absorption, but ever-present sense of justice and engagement with the world. Through the strength of her writing, helped along with images projected above each line of seats, the space transforms from the world of her childhood and education in Olympia, Washington, to an aeroplane journey to Gaza, to check points outside of Rafah, and the base there for Corrie’s work with the International Solidarity Movement.
Wong jumps from chair to floor, she pushes her desk around the space, her boundless energy brims out of her small frame, threatening to spill onto the audience. She paces round the perimeter of her square of light, making lists, ordering her quick-firing thoughts. “What I have: thighs, a throat and a belly. Sharp teeth and beady eyes.” This witty attention to her corporeality and the horrible irony of her perceptive words as a 12 year old are incredibly moving: “It’s all relative anyway; nine years is as long as 40 years depending on how long you’ve lived.” We learn the motivations behind her activism, her desire to see what is at the other end of the spending of American taxpayer’s money, and her sense of guilt that she can leave the Middle East whenever she wants, but that the local people who have “sweetly doted on [her]” have no escape from their afflictions. The monologue is given a sense of conversation as we hear extracts from her worried parents’ emails: “There is a lot in my heart but I am having trouble with the words. Be safe, be well. Do you think about coming home? Because of the war and all? I know probably not, but I hope you feel it would be okay if you did.”

But at moments the dense text heads towards information overload and Wong’s unwavering energy feels monotonous. I alter my focus onto the audience directly opposite me. Some seem entirely engaged, others shuffle and accidentally make eye contact with me. It’s difficult to digest this vibrant stream of thought without any downtime. At one point my mind wanders onto why this show has previously provoked so much controversy in North America, with performances cancelled in New York for fear of offending Jewish audiences. The performance doesn’t claim to be anything other than an individual’s subjective thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian situation; Corrie’s naivety is not disguised. We see that this is someone learning, changing, and scared as she starts to question herself and her “fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature”.

In an article for the Guardian, Katherine Viner states that she and Rickman “chose Rachel’s words rather than those of the thousands of Palestinian or Israeli victims because of the quality and accessibility of the writing.” To me it seems that in using an outsider’s perspective on the situation in Gaza, Viner and Rickman not only create a route into these complex issues with which Western audiences might better be able to identify and therefore begin to think actively about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, but they also avoid a reductionist “taking of sides”.
Wong’s animated outpour finally pauses. “Rachel Corrie died on the 16th of March, 2003.” She puts on a bright fluorescent orange jacket. Standing still, she switches on two TV monitors in opposite corners of the room. We crane our necks to see a fellow activist’s hurried and emotional account of Corrie’s death. The reality of his fear and adrenalin rush hits me hard in the stomach. Wong then turns over a panel on her desk which reveals a miniature landscape, a tiny version of the place Corrie died. Another video is projected onto the walls above: Rachel Corrie as a child is making an impassioned speech about how we can “solve hunger by the year 2000” if we work together, how a bright future where everyone’s human rights are respected is possible. As the onscreen audience applaud the small blonde child, Adrienne Wong joins in. Stunned, we follow.

During the show I was overwhelmed by the mass of information being propelled at me. But I’m still thinking, still running her words through my mind. I read my notes and Guardian reports on the incident of her death, trying to gather as much information as I can about the context for My Name is Rachel Corrie. If its aim has been to make us think, to spark interest and encourage discussion about the issues it introduced, it has succeeded. Whether the show will provoke action and involvement on the global scale that Corrie envisaged as a child, or even on the individual scale that she worked on in Rafah, is another—disheartening—question.

neworldtheatre & Teesri Duniya Theatre, My Name is Rachel Corrie, taken from the writings of Rachel Corrie edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, director Sarah Garton Stanley, performer Adrienne Wong, collaborating director Marcus Youssef, designer Ana Cappelluto, lighting Itai Erdal, sound Peter Cerone, video Candelario Andrade, sound/video systems Jesse Ash; Havana Theatre, Jan 24-Feb 2; PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts, Jan 16 - Feb 3

British-born, Eleanor Hadley Kershaw is currently based in Brussels, facilitating communications with IETM - international network for contemporary performing arts/réseau international des arts du spectacle. She has a Foundation Diploma in Art, Media and Design and a BA in English from Cambridge.

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 10

© Eleanor Hadley Kershaw; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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