Theater's Contested Ground
Tale of Slain Middle East Activist Touched a Nerve -- Especially After Plans to Stage It Were Scrubbed

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."

It sure did. Playwrights Harold Pinter and Stephen Fry, and author Gillian Slovo, among others, signed a letter that appeared last month in the New York Times expressing "dismay" over Nicola's decision. Hundreds of supporters of Corrie and Palestinian rights showed up at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side recently for a night of readings. "Zionist pig" is among the more polite slurs Nicola has read in e-mails sent to the theater.

And the Guardian, a British newspaper, offered a link to a song about the affair, sung by none other than England's great socially conscious folk-rocker Billy Bragg, to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

An artistic director of a New York theater

Canceled a play based on Rachel's writings

But she wasn't a bomber or a killer or fighter

But one who acted in the spirit of the Freedom Riders.

In the span of a mere 20 days, Nicola managed to annoy just about every constituency that cares about New York theater -- and a few that don't. As bad, the Workshop has unintentionally resurrected the idea that Jewish patrons constitute a super-powerful force in Manhattan that controls the cultural agenda there and will countenance a hearty debate about any topic except Israel.

It hasn't helped that Nicola won't say which advisers he talked to -- a blank spot in the narrative that all but invites the conspiracy-minded to infer the hand of a Jewish cabal. The most that Nicola will offer is that the rabbi of a board member expressed some concerns, as did an old friend.

"Once Jim names names, they're going to become part of the story," says Wayne Kabak, president of the Workshop's board and a senior executive at William Morris, the talent agency. "It's not fair to ask someone to comment on a play and then later tell them, 'By the way, that conversation is going to wind up in The Washington Post.' "

* * *

Nicola is an unlikely character to find in the center of this maelstrom. As the head of a theater best known for producing "Rent," and having handled his share of dramaturgical hot potatoes, including Tony Kushner's play about Afghanistan, "Homebody/Kabul," he's accustomed to taking risks. "James Nicola has been more successful at being fearless than most artistic directors in this town," says David Van Asselt, who heads Rattlestick, on off-Broadway theater. "That's part of what makes this story so striking."

"Corrie" had all the markings of a theatrical hand grenade. Even the details of Rachel's final minutes are feverishly debated. On March 16, 2003, her friends and allies say, she was deliberately run over by an Israeli soldier as she tried to prevent the razing of the house of a Palestinian pharmacist. The Israelis, after investigating, called her death "a regrettable accident" and concluded that Corrie wasn't protecting a home but interrupting a security operation to destroy tunnels used by militants to run guns from Egypt.

Corrie seemed destined to pass into obscurity. But journalist Katherine Viner and actor Alan Rickman -- he is best known as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films -- pored over Corrie's writings and stitched them into an 80-minute monologue. Their play, which Rickman directed, was a "sellout hit," according to the Royal Court's Thomson, and is currently being staged in that city for the third time. There were many positive reviews and some negative.

Which raises an interesting question, largely overlooked in this mess: Is "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" any good? A copy of the play was provided by the Workshop, and though it would surely be a different experience in person, on the page the play brings to mind a surprising work: "The Diary of Anne Frank."

The buoyant writing, the optimism in the midst of ordeal, the mundane girly details mixed with poignant insights, and, of course, the life cut short -- it shares a lot with the intimate confessional scribblings of a Dutch girl who hid with her family during World War II, and who, like Corrie, never wrote with an audience in mind.

"For a long time I've been operating from a certain core assumption that we are all essentially the same inside and our differences are by and large situational," Corrie says at one point, a sentiment that could have come straight from Anne Frank's pen.

A comparison of the two works is revealing. Nobody has ever knocked "Anne Frank" because it omitted the Nazis' side of the story. But whatever your position on the Middle East conflict, it certainly has more nuances than a showdown between Innocent and Evil, and any play that ignores those subtleties shortchanges the subject. That's exactly what "Corrie" does. In the Middle East as presented through Corrie's writing, there are no Palestinians with bad intentions, or Israelis who want peace.

"What we are paying for here is truly evil," Corrie says as the play reaches its denouement. In another place she wonders if "fifty-year-old Russian guns and homemade explosives can have any impact on the activities of one of the world's largest militaries backed by the world's only superpower."

Well, yes, actually. Corrie was in Gaza during the second Intifada, which started in 2000 and killed more than 500 Israeli civilians in the course of five years, many by suicide bombs. Nobody would suggest that this is a fight between evenly matched foes, but to assert that the bloodshed had no impact on Israel ignores the shift in politics, not to mention the grief, that all the killing provoked.

In a review, the Times of London called "Corrie" an "unabashedly one-sided tribute." That's a nice way to put it. But if the play is propagandistic, the next question is: So what? A play so forthright about its passions, on a subject so explosive -- isn't that what off-Broadway is for?

"I think so," says Allan Buchman, the founding director of the Culture Project, an off-Broadway theater. Buchman is one of a handful of artistic directors vying for dibs on the U.S. debut of "Corrie." He was interested when the play was initially shopped around New York last year, but the publicity surrounding the Workshop fiasco seems to have made it an even hotter property. Buchman flew to London recently, in part to lobby the Royal Court management.

"I'm a bar mitzvah boy -- I know that if I said something to my family that sounds critical of Israel, I'd get cold dinner for a week," he says. "And God forbid I mention Vanessa Redgrave," the pro-Palestinian actress. "But maybe this play could spark a conversation, and we ought to be able to have enlightened disagreement about this subject."

The Culture Project considers political plays its mandate. You'll hear more cautious tones from the heads of larger and more mainstream venues. The Public Theater, for example, is arguably the most influential and revered off-Broadway house in the city and, in a way, the logical home for "Rachel Corrie." There's a slight hint of "after you" from Oskar Eustis, the head of the Public, when he discusses the subject.

"Our profound hope is that somehow the Royal Court reconciles with the Workshop," Eustis says, explaining that a host of logistical problems prevents the Public from staging the show. "There are two dangers here. One is the suppression of a play, which is a very serious problem, and the other is the threat to a brave and groundbreaking artistic director who made a mistake. It would be a huge loss if the Workshop and Jim were somehow crushed by this."

The Royal Court hasn't decided which playhouse will get the honors. Thomson, its spokesman, said about a dozen theaters have been in touch and one, the Seattle Repertory Theater, has already slotted the play on its 2007 schedule. But a New York theater will stage it first, Thomson explains, hopefully in the fall.

Does the Workshop have a chance?

"Now they're bowing to media pressure and saying they'd love to do this play," Thomson says with a sigh. "It just seems whoever leans on them, that's what happens. You can't program theater like that."

Nicola realizes that the next round of embarrassment will come when a rival theater gets the nod, making the Workshop seem gutless by comparison and reaping the rewards of all this free publicity. He's ready for it.

"It's an important play with a powerful message," he says. "We wanted to foster a community dialogue about it, and I think, in almost a perverse way, we succeeded."

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