Theater's Contested Ground

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

NEW YORK Denounced as a coward, hectored on the Internet and chided by an array of literary heavyweights -- it's been a brutal few weeks for James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop. You know you're having a tough month when the nicest thing anyone can say about you is that you're a public-relations doofus.

"I don't think I'm a stupid person," says Nicola, sitting at a kitchen table in the theater's Manhattan offices. "I just don't think I'm savvy in these ways."

To say the least.

Nicola achieved something close to instant infamy in the theater world when, in late February, he announced the postponement of the American premiere of "My Name Is Rachel Corrie." The play, which has been staged in London, is drawn from the writings of an American activist crushed to death three years ago at age 23 by an Israeli bulldozer as she protested demolitions in Gaza. The one-woman play includes snippets of her diary and e-mail, following Corrie from her childhood in Washington state to her final days on the front lines of Palestinian protests against Israel.

When Nicola asked the managers of the Royal Court Theatre, which owns the rights to the play, for additional time to mount the production, what they heard was not "We can't meet the current schedule." They heard "We're bailing."

"James told us that he wanted to postpone the production indefinitely ," says Royal Court spokesman Ewan Thomson. "And he said, 'If you want to talk to other partners, I will completely understand.' We were like, 'Oh my God.' "

A full-blown debacle ensued. The theater was accused of caving to its Jewish advisers and friends who consider "Corrie" a piece of anti-Israel agitprop. It was an impression reinforced by Nicola, who acknowledged that after agreeing in January to stage the play he'd canvassed Jewish acquaintances, among others. Some of them had read the play, some just knew Corrie's story. The vehemence of the response surprised him.

Now why Nicola was surprised is a bit of a mystery. Though unknown to most Americans, Corrie is one of those polarizing figures who personify the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians. A Unitarian, she was part of the International Solidarity Movement, which organizes nonviolent protests in the West Bank and Gaza, deploying members as "human shields" against destruction of Palestinian property. Soon after her death, she was lionized as a martyr by Yasser Arafat. Israelis generally regard her as a deluded and overzealous partisan; they assert that she perished trying to protect terrorists.

As Nicola learned more about the Jewish antipathy toward "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," the timing of the production, slated to open in late March, suddenly seemed awful, he recalls. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had slipped into a coma. Hamas, a political organization fanatically hostile to the Jewish state, had just come to power in the Palestinian territories through popular election.

"Nobody told us not to do the play," Nicola says of his discussions with Jewish advisers. "The only thing we heard was 'Do the play, sure. But be aware that this is a community on the defensive and if somebody is going to pick a fight, there is going to be a response.' "

When he requested a postponement of the production, Nicola says, all he wanted was time to do things such as set up post-curtain discussion panels and get the press-release language just right. And, although he hasn't spoken to the Royal Court for weeks, he says he still hopes he'll get the chance to introduce this show to a U.S. audience.

"A friend of mine the other day said this is probably all the result of cultural differences," says Nicola. "The Royal Court people were hearing one thing and we meant another. Then it all came crashing down."

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