Youthful passions end in tragedy
by Richard Dodds
Sun Valley is a blue dot in the red state of Idaho. But when a local theater company put on a 2010 staged reading of My Name Is Rachel Corrie in Ketchum, the area's major metropolitan area with a population of 2,700, you'd think Jane Fonda was a surprise speaker at a Tea Party convention. The parents of the late American political activist, whose youthful passions centered on Palestinian rights when she was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, were present for a talkback after the readings, and found themselves on the wrong side of a verbal firing squad.
Charlotte Hemmings, who played Corrie in the one-woman play, was thrown off-balance. "I think 'sickening' is a good word for what happened," she recently said from Ketchum, where she is in rehearsals with director Jonathan Kane for a fully staged production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie that begins a run at the Magic Theatre on April 27. "There was very strong anger and love on both sides of the conflict, and the Corries took it very well," Hemmings said. "They reminded people that, hey, we lost our little baby girl when she was just 23, so take it easy. There's a universality in that kind of loss, and if people can't set aside their politics to see that, that's a shame."
But before anyone in such swathes of progressive blue as New York and San Francisco tut-tut at Sun Valley intolerance, Rachel Corrie certainly pushed buttons in both these locales. My Name Is Rachel Corrie, compiled by late actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner from Corrie's journals and letters home, had a well-received premiere in London in 2005, where it won multiple awards. A transfer was planned the next year to New York Theatre Workshop, where Rent had its debut and such notable playwrights as Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner have unveiled new works, but the theater started getting blowback from many of Jewish interests, and the show was "indefinitely postponed."
And we cannot forget what happened when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival scheduled the documentary Rachel as part of its 2009 events. The festival board's president stepped down from her role in protest, opening ceremonies were boycotted, and the Israel Consul General said it was a "big mistake to invite Mrs. Corrie" to participate in another talkback. But the movie was shown as scheduled, and Craig and Cindy Corrie will be at talkbacks following the May 3 and 4 performances at the Magic.
Rachel Corrie was in the Gaza Strip in 2003 as part of a senior-year project at Evergreen State College in her native Olympia, Wash., and on the day of her death she was either intentionally or accidentally run over by a bulldozer that may have been razing Palestinian homes or clearing bush. Investigations and lawsuits followed, with the Israeli courts declaring it an accident precipitated by a careless woman who had put herself in harm's way. Stories emerged after her death suggesting she was affiliated with Hamas, or at least sympathized with the organization, a notion her parents refute.
"I think Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner did such a beautiful job in creating the play from her words," Hemmings said. "They don't paint her as a saint or martyr, but a young idealist with a spark of brilliance who deserves to be shown for all of who she was instead of this really political symbol."
Of course, Corrie didn't plan on dying, and her writings were not intended as anything other than observations for herself and for her parents. The fact is that Rachel Corrie's name would not have lived on had she not been such an impassioned, vivid chronicler of what she was experiencing. The play doesn't even start in Gaza, but goes back as far as her childhood journals, where she was already imagining her role as a future peacemaker while trying to plan how her first encounter with an ex-boyfriend will go. Emails between Rachel and her parents then become the basis of the latter half of the play.
"I don't think she would be very pleased with the idea that her life has become about her death," Hemmings said. "She was just reporting back on what she was seeing and what she was feeling, and she was such an amazing writer that if she were alive today, plays and novels would be pouring out of her."
The staged readings in Ketchum were done at nexStage, a small theater that Hemmings' father, the late British actor David Hemmings (Blow-Up ), helped establish during a retreat from Hollywood. He played such roles as Scrooge and Dracula there, while Charlotte was playing various roles in children's productions before graduating to the theater's main productions. The elder Hemmings relocated to London when his career as a character actor began picking up, while Charlotte and her mother, a set decorator, remained in Ketchum.
Hemmings and her husband relocated to Portland two years ago to work as graphic designers, and to have a baby, and she put her acting career on the backburner. The same production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie coming to the Magic was staged in New York in 2015, and helped get her theatrical fires recharged.
"But I was really scared about going into New York because of what happened the first time they tried to stage it in New York, and then what happened in Sun Valley," Hemmings said. "We were really shocked by how welcoming everyone in New York was. The lobby was packed after each performance with people taking part in a very benign and non-aggressive discourse. If art can do that, then it's doing its job."
The Sawtooth Productions presentation of My Name Is Rachel Corrie will run April 27-May 14 at the Magic Theatre. Tickets are $50. Call (415) 441-8822 or go to magictheatre.org.