hemmings sits wearing a scarf on her head
Charlotte Hemmings plays the title role in “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” (Photo/Kirsten Shultz)

Slain activist Rachel Corrie’s controversial story comes to the stage

“My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” a play based on the writings of the 23-year-old American activist who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting in Gaza, is coming to the Bay Area a dozen years after its London premiere.

The one-woman play has been performed in 20 countries and several U.S. cities with different producers and actors. This new production by Sawtooth Productions opens April 27 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and stars Charlotte Hemmings. The daughter of British actor David Hemmings, she played the title role in the successful 2015 run of the off-Broadway production directed and produced by Jonathan Kane.

“Most people would open a show elsewhere and then bring it to New York,” Kane said. “We opened it in New York and it’s turning out to have been a kind of dress rehearsal for San Francisco.”

The script, co-written in 2005 by British journalist Katharine Viner and the late British actor Alan Rickman, is based on Corrie’s emails and other personal writing. “I read it and was blown away,” said Kane. “Although Rachel Corrie was only 23 years old, she was a brilliant writer. [Viner and Rickman] took her writing and put it into this incredible play about peace.”

Corrie was an Evergreen State College student from a middle-class Protestant family in Olympia, Washington, who joined up with the International Solidarity Movement. Her senior year at college coincided with the Second Intifada, and she traveled to the Gaza Strip to set up a sister-city project between her hometown and the Palestinian city of Rafah and to engage in solidarity actions. She was killed when she stood in front of an armored Caterpillar bulldozer operated by the Israel Defense Forces that was preparing to demolish a Palestinian home.

Charlotte Hemmings plays the title role in “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” (Photo/Kirsten Shultz)
Charlotte Hemmings plays the title role in “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” (Photo/Kirsten Shultz)

Israeli authorities maintain demolitions were carried out to eliminate weapons-smuggling tunnels. Human rights groups say the demolitions were collective punishment. The exact nature of Corrie’s death and the culpability of the bulldozer operator are still disputed; ISM protesters say the driver deliberately ran over Corrie, and Israeli eyewitnesses say the bulldozer operator could not see her. Her parents sued the IDF and the Defense Ministry, but a Haifa District Court judge ruled that Corrie’s death was an accident for which she was responsible and absolved the IDF of any wrongdoing, a judgment upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2014. Many American and international experts have weighed in on the incident.

In a 2005 article about the writing of the play, Viner stressed that “We’ve tried to do justice to the whole of Rachel: neither saint nor traitor, both serious and funny, messy and talented, devastatingly prescient and human and whole. … We chose Rachel’s words rather than those of the thousands of Palestinian or Israeli victims because of the quality and accessibility of the writing.”

Given the conflicting claims and stories about Corrie’s life and tragic death, what does a one-woman play add to the conversation?

“I can really only say it’s Rachel’s perspective,” Hemmings said. “She was young, she was idealistic, and a lot of people have opinions about who she was and what she was doing there. I stay out of that. I’m a believer in the piece. I think the play is very illuminating.”

Some critics have claimed that the play evinces a natural sympathy for the main character and that it contributes to anti-Israel sentiment. The sympathy is magnified, they say, when Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, attends productions to speak with audiences, which she has done around the world and will do again in San Francisco on May 3 and 4, joined by her husband, Craig Corrie.

Kane said the play did not spark controversy during the 2015 New York production. “I’m Jewish, my family is Jewish and very pro-Israel, and they all came to the show, as did a number of friends,” he said. “The response I got from them was that the idea that the show was anti-Semitic or anti-Israel was kind of ludicrous. There was one protester. Maybe New York is a different animal.”

Indeed, local history would indicate that it is.

While Bay Area audiences have not seen a production of the play here, a documentary film about Rachel Corrie (“Rachel” by Simone Bitton) shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in the summer of 2009 unleashed a storm of controversy in the Jewish community. The presence of Cindy Corrie at one panel discussion was particularly contentious and was criticized by various leaders, including then-Consul General of Israel Akiva Tor.

Rancorous argument erupted at the discussion, which was followed by months of debate and an outpouring of letters published in J. One asked then-festival director Peter Stein to apologize for the organization’s poor judgment in inviting Cindy Corrie to speak. He would express regret only for the pain it caused.

“If we, as an arts organization, are going to remain relevant in our time, it really is part of our role to catalyze conversation, however uncomfortable it may be, Stein told J. at the time.

Kane and Hemmings share that view. “I don’t pretend to understand the politics better than others, but I do believe that intelligent discourse and dialogue should be the result of the questions that art raises, and this play definitely does that,” Hemmings said.

The result of the community upheaval was the adoption of a set of guidelines by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation early the following year that, among other things, stated that Federation funding would not go to organizations or events that delegitimized the State of Israel.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, at the time executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, was instrumental in formulating the guidelines. He said he would not speculate about Jewish community reaction to this production.

“The kind of polarization that existed in 2009 and was particularly strong in the Bay Area has spread to Jewish communities across the country amid divisions around Israel and other issues,” Kahn said, speaking in his emeritus role. “Flare-ups can still occur here, but the Year of Civil Discourse, mounted [in fall 2010] by JCRC, Jewish Community Federation and the Board of Rabbis [of Northern California] after the 2009 Jewish Film Festival, helped provide tools for people to disagree agreeably. Absent this initiative, we would see more tensions arise more frequently within our community.”

However, many individuals and organizations contacted for this article with memory of the film festival controversy, such as Stein and the local chapter of the Israel lobby group J Street, chose not to comment.

Oakland resident Sarah Anne Minkin, Manager of Strategic Relationships and Education at the nonprofit Just Vision, researched the San Francisco funding guidelines for her doctoral thesis at UC Berkeley. She says the guidelines had a “chilling effect” on the expression of divergent views in the Jewish community.

Asked whether she believed the Bay Area Jewish community might react differently to this theater production than it did to the “Rachel” film eight years ago, Minkin replied, “I would suggest that there is no ‘Jewish community.’ There are multiple Jewish communities and there will be many different responses.”

Said Kane: “People are going to react how they’re going to react, and have strong feelings about all this, but Charlotte and I are artists and we believe in the work as something extraordinary. The key thing to remember is that this play is Rachel’s story. It’s her words, her experiences. And you can’t really contradict that.”

Hemmings said she hopes that “in the not-too-distant future when a peaceful and fair resolution to the conflict has been found, that rather than this piece of writing being so politicized, it will be heralded for its greatness as a story about an amazing young idealist and the tragedy of her death. That’s really what it’s about.”

“My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” April 27-May 14 at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason. Post-show talks are offered with Kane and Hemmings on April 29, and with Craig and Cindy Corrie on May 3 and 4. (415) 441-8822 or magictheatre.org

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.