Disputed Play on Gaza Activist Debuts in Seattle

A play about an activist who died in Gaza while opposing Israeli forces moves on to Seattle. The New York Theater Workshop recently canceled performances, which many critics saw as evidence of pro-Israel bias.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Another hot button issue led to charges of censorship. That was the accusation against the New York Theater Workshop when it indefinitely postponed a play called, "My Name is Rachel Corrie." It's about a young woman from Olympia, Washington, who died while opposing the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip.

Critics saw the postponement as evidence of pro-Israel bias. Now the first homegrown American production of the play has premiered at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, controversy is still part of the show.

MARTIN KASTE: This play paints an unambiguously grim picture of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

KASTE: Where Rachel Corrie volunteered with a pro-Palestinian group in 2003. The monologues, performed here by Marya Sea Kaminski, draw from Corrie's real e-mails and diaries.

Ms. MARYA SEA KAMINSKI (Actor) (as Rachel Corrie): March 13th, 9 PM Twelve-year-old girl shot from tower in school near national hospital. 11 PM, shooting behind west camp, came out…

KASTE: Corrie was killed while confronting an Israeli bulldozer that was demolishing Palestinian houses as part of a military operation. The circumstances of her death were hotly debated at the time. But lately, the focus has shifted to the play itself. Corrie's own writings seem to anticipate the controversy.

Ms. KAMINSKI: The scariest thing for non-Jewish Americans in talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of being or sounding anti-Semitic.

KASTE: When the New York Theater Workshop put the play on hold last year, it raised howls of criticism from London, where the play had originated. The Brits ended up exporting their own production to another stage in New York. Some said the incident proved that criticism of Israel was not welcome in America.

Now the Seattle Repertory has weighed in, and artistic director David Esbjornson has received some angry e-mails. But does he agree with the notion of a pro-Israel bias in America? The question makes him uneasy.

Mr. DAVID ESBJORNSON (Artistic Director, Seattle Repertory Theatre): You know, I think there are alliances. I think there are politics that come into play. And we are a country that has lost a little bit of its muscle in terms of having debate and dialogue.

KASTE: Pro-Israel groups in Seattle insist that they do not want to suppress the play, but they also insist on their right to criticize it. David Brummer(ph), a member of the Anti-Defamation League, says the play's timing is bad as it follows an incident last summer when a gunman barged into the Seattle offices of the Jewish Federation, spouted anti-Israel invective, and killed the woman.

Mr. DAVID BRUMMER (Anti-Defamation League): To put a play on that is so provocative in the polemic that it puts against Israel. Again, there is a sense that there's a demonization that is just - it can present a climate again that's not really healthy.

KASTE: The ADL and others bought a full-page ad in the Playbill entitled "Don't Be Mislead." Another ad, placed by the Jewish Federation, shows photos of Israeli women named Rachel who were killed by Palestinian terrorists.

Ms. LISA CONNICK(ph): Are you going to see Rachel Corrie tonight?

Unidentified Woman #1: We are.

KASTE: And outside the theatre, volunteers, like Lisa Connick are handing out leaflets with a similar message. There are a few tense moments.

Unidentified Woman #1: What is it about?

Ms. CONNICK: Just the play.

Unidentified Woman #2: It's always…

Ms. CONNICK: It's really pro-peace, actually. Pro-peace.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, no it's not. Throw it away.

Ms. CONNICK: Well, you haven't taken the time to read it yet.

KASTE: And now a group of counter leafleters has also appeared, handing out pro-Palestinian literature. Still, Connick says everything has stayed civil.

Ms. CONNICK: It's still Seattle. I've had probably a dozen people come back and ask for our flyer. Oh, I got the other one. Now I need to get yours. It's such a Seattle thing…

KASTE: What? You mean, because they want to be fair and have both sides?

Ms. CONNICK: Yeah. It's because Seattleites, like, are really into being informed and, you know, I think it's so charming.

KASTE: Whatever the truth about free speech and Israel, tonight at least on this sidewalk the debate seems pretty healthy.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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