SHEPHERDSTOWN — A controversial but award-winning play based on the diaries and e-mails of a 23-year-old peace activist who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while volunteering in Gaza stirred a frank discussion Sunday about the seemingly unending Palestinian-Israeli Mideast conflict.
The play, "My Name is Rachel Corrie," was performed at Shepherd University during the 17th annual Contemporary American Theater Festival.
Born in Olympia, Wa., Corrie joined other foreign nationals working for the International Solidarity Movement before completing her studies at Evergreen State College. She traveled to Gaza in January 2003 and was killed that March, crushed by a Israel Defense Force bulldozer operating in Rafah.
"I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and of basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances, which I also haven't seen before. I think the word is dignity. I wish you could meet these people. Maybe, hopefully, someday you will." Corrie wrote in an e-mail a month before her death.
Journalist Katherine Viner and British actor and director Alan Rickman drafted the play using Corrie's journal entries and e-mails describing her experience. The CATF production was directed by CATF producing director Ed Herendeen. CATF's production of the one-woman play starred actress Anne Marie Nest who gave a riveting performance as Corrie.
"I look forward to seeing more and more people willing to resist the direction the world is moving in, a direction where our personal experiences are irrelevant, that we are defective, that our communities are not important, that we are powerless, that our future is determined, and that the highest level of humanity is expressed through what we choose to buy at the mall," Nest said during the play, quoting an e-mail Corrie wrote to her parents.
Nest, clothed in ripped jeans and a bright yellow T-shirt featuring a rainbow and the words "Save the world," embodied the wide-eyed idealism, arguably naive world view, of the 23-year-old Corrie during the 90-minute play.
The play, is not without its critics, though. First performed in 2005 in London, other major cities have canceled performances under pressure due to its content. Critics argue that the play is too one-sided and fails to put the violence and conflict into context. Others have gone so far as to say it could foster anti-Israeli sentiment primarily because of it's pro-Palestinian slant.
In the interest of discussing the play, on Sunday CATF welcomed Asaf Romirowsky, manager of Israel and Middle East Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Campus Watch Associate Fellow of the Middle East Forum, for a post-show discussion.
"I think that if you're looking at the larger context, I think the story of Rachel Corrie is unfortunate, but I also think it's quite telling about the type of message she gave Palestinians about Americans," Romirowsky said.
One example he cited was Corrie's reaction to the events of Sept. 11 and the reaction of the Palestinian people.
"As a result of Sept. 11 the only nationality to celebrate Sept. 11 vocally and visually were the Palestinians. They were the ones dancing in streets burning American flags and burning Israeli flags simultaneously," he said.
Romirowsky said the group Corrie had been volunteering for has worked with such groups as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Romirowsky, a former Israel Defence Force International Relations liaison officer in the West Bank, currently serves as an IDF reserve liaison officer to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. A highly decorated academic who played a part in the Oslo Peace Accords, his writings have appeared in the Middle East Quarterly, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, National Review, Washington Times and Front Page magazine.
During the post-show discussion, Romirowsky also contested the production's presentation of Rafah, where Corrie was killed, as a place inhabited by innocent victims, adding the play fails to address longstanding Israeli claims that the area, which borders Egypt, is used as a major smuggling point for weapons for Palestinian militants.
"About 100 to120 tunnels were uncovered on that border," said Romirowsky, adding Palestinians have not been suffering as a result of the Israeli occupation, but rather because of corruption and cronyism in the Palestinian Authority.
While Corrie and Romirowsky's viewpoints represent a difference of opinion on the conflict, perhaps the one thing they can agree on is a desire for peace in the region.
"If anything I would love to see peace," Romirowsky said. "I think what the problem is today is there is a cycle of violence. ...The kids who are throwing rocks today, their fathers were throwing rocks in the 80s. There has to to be somebody who says enough."