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my name is rachel corrie: an intimate invitation

meg walker

Meg Walker is a nomadic fiction and non-fiction writer currently based in Vancouver, where she also spends plenty of time making visual art.

Adrienne Wong, My Name is Rachel Corrie Adrienne Wong, My Name is Rachel Corrie
photo Tim Matheson
The actor shakes every person’s hand as they walk into the small, square Havana Theatre. “Hi, I’m Adrienne Wong.” The gesture invites you personally and a few minutes later, when Wong launches into My Name Is Rachel Corrie, you realize she’s set up an intimacy that she’ll develop as the play unfolds.

In fact Teesri Duniya Theatre (Montreal) and neworld theatre (Vancouver) have taken care to build intimacy into every part of the show. The performance is in the round but there’s only one row of about twelve seats along each wall, so every sight line is direct. The set is functional: a thickly upholstered white office chair and a skinny white one-legged table, both on wheels, a white laptop computer, and a white square of light projected onto a white vinyl square taped to the floor. Narrow horizontal screens hang above each row of chairs; the initial projection is a collage of headlines about the death of the young American peace activist killed in Gaza in 2003 along with excerpts from her emails. It’s all pared down and it’s all around you all the time.

Pacing the stage, or swirling in the chair, Wong swivels every minute or so to address all of the audience. At some point she will look at you, and you know she’ll do it again. It’s not invasive, it’s engaging, and it brought me into the story almost as if it was a conversation.

Directness shapes the evening profoundly. The play is constructed from Corrie’s metaphor-filled, descriptive emails and letters (compiled by UK actor Alan Rickman and Guardian journalist Katharine Viner in 2004-05). Corrie was a skilled, nimble writer but the words were originally meant to be read, not spoken. Wong’s eye-contact and restless movements give them a convincing physicality. And the straightforward, person-to-person approach cuts through the thick layer of controversy that surrounds this work – polarized opinions, cancelled productions in New York and Toronto, and the difficult facts about Corrie’s death and Gaza Palestinians’ ongoing lack of reliable access to water, housing and food. When Wong/Corrie looks right at you, the question is: what do you feel, what do you think? It’s a powerful way to handle what has become such a locked-down story.

And this is what usually gets lost in debate about this play. A substantial chunk of it is about Corrie as a person. We meet her as a pre-teen, then in high school, then college, before she feels the pull to try and understand personally a complicated part of the world. Her young voice is endearing and funny. One day she goes for a walk in the forest and sings Russian drinking songs to the trees. She describes walking home late at night in “slutty boots” thinking about the salmon who, thanks to modern city life, have to swim back to their birthplace through culverts since that’s where the streams are now diverted. “It’s hard to be extraordinarily vacuous when you always have salmon in the back of your mind.” These are simple, almost innocent thoughts that show a mind growing.

The play reveals the context of Corrie’s activism. As she learns, organizes and joins events, like walking down the street with forty other people dressed as white doves, her voice alters. She wants to know what happens on the other end of US tax dollars in places where that massive military budget is being spent. She’s angry but humble. After she arrives in Gaza, to work with the International Solidarity Movement to watchdog against events like water wells and greenhouses being bulldozed, she retains that sense of probing. She never sets herself up as an expert: “I am new to speaking about the Israel-Palestine conflict so I don’t always understand the political implications of what I am saying.” She’s just a person trying to figure out what’s going on. She notices glow-in-the-dark stars in blown-out bedrooms; she’s disturbed when closed checkpoints prevent Palestinian workers from going to, or returning from, their jobs. The play doesn’t become didactic; it offers information and opinion, and asks us to form our own thoughts.

Wisely, Corrie’s death is not enacted. Completing her moments as Corrie, Wong puts on a bright orange safety jacket, reads aloud her last email to her mother (about two men offering her a meal), and steps off stage. A moment later, she takes off the jacket and activates two small-screen videos in which a young man describes how the bulldozer moved toward, then over, Corrie. It’s the right amount of detail: facts are involved here, and no one pretends to know them all.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie is a story about how a person grows to look outside her own life and tries to grapple with huge, traumatizing events that she knows she can walk away from at any given moment, even though the people living there can’t. Corrie’s convictions about justice, compassion and activism led her to Palestine, but those beliefs can be applied to other injustices in the world. Journalists, activists, immigrants and others in areas torn by military conflict talk about having to make difficult choices on a regular, sometimes daily basis. Can the rest of us learn from their experiences, or are they too distinct from ours? And, thinking of Corrie’s death specifically, aren’t there any insights from her story that reach beyond the specifics of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Like the square of light that widened and shrank around Wong as she moved through expansive or frightened, tightened moods, the play can open out or close down our ideas if we are willing to take that first handshake for what I think it was: an invitation to hear one real person tell another real person’s story, respecting us, too, as individuals with so much to learn.

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

Meg Walker is a nomadic fiction and non-fiction writer currently based in Vancouver, where she also spends plenty of time making visual art.

RealTime issue #0 pg.

© Meg Walker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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