How rare in this region is a stage production conveying a Palestinian point of view? Over the past 16 years, I've seen one show that attempted it.
In the fall of 2007, Ellen Hemphill directed PlayMakers Repertory Company's artistic director, Joseph Haj, in a memorable performance of Raja Shehadeh's When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, a pensive first-person account of a human rights activist's experience during the 2002 siege of Ramallah, on the West Bank. Bulbul won the Indy's theatrical award that year for special achievement in the humanities.
In our interview at the time, Haj noted that few good plays were exploring the Palestinian/ Israeli divide but concluded that the 2005 drama My Name Is Rachel Corrie "may be the exception that proves the rule." Corrie, a student from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., gave the decades-long Middle Eastern conflict a young American face when she was crushed beneath a Caterpillar bulldozer in Gaza in March 2003. She had been in the Palestinian territories for almost two months, assisting the International Solidarity Movement, an organization dedicated to nonviolent resistance against Israeli occupation in Palestinian lands. At the time of her death, she was trying to prevent the earthmover from demolishing a Palestinian home.
The play, by Katharine Viner, an editor with the London Guardian, and Alan Rickman, a British actor-director known best as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, does not sensationally re-enact Corrie's death. Instead, the one-person show presents the activist in her own words: what she saw as an activist, and her immediate and sometimes visceral responses to the events unfolding around her. Rickman and Viner compiled the text from her journals, correspondence, emails and personal writings, from childhood to just before the time of her death. W.W. Norton has published a collection of those writings.
This weekend, Burning Coal Theater Company presents what it calls "the most controversial play of our time" in its second-stage production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The performance is directed by visiting director Tea Alagić. In addition to her MFA in drama from Yale, Alagić has another unique qualification to direct an account of a people under siege: As an adolescent, she survived the bombing of her native city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
We spoke by phone last week.
INDEPENDENT: What brought you to produce this work here?
TEA ALAGIĆ: Several months ago, I directed a workshop production of The River Nun by Chris Cragin at Burning Coal after the script had a reading at the Public Theater in New York. At the time [Burning Coal artistic director] Jerry Davis asked me if I might like to work here again.
A couple of months later, Jerry asked me to read the script. Then he asked if I'd like to direct it. I said yes.
What interests you about the script?
I am very much interested in documentary theater. I do a lot of documentary plays; [in 2006] I wrote one about my own experiences, called Zero Hour. I'm interested in how you work as a director from journals, diaries, emails. That kind of language is powerful to me because it's not structured in a classically theatrical way. It's raw. It's very very alive. Here, it's a very personal take on what [Corrie] is going through—and the responses of her parents.
I'm wondering how your experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina resonate with Corrie's account of her time in the Palestinian territories.
The siege began in 1991, but by 1992 it became really, really dangerous. When there was a window of possibility so people could leave the city, my parents put me in a car with the idea that we were going to meet in two weeks. We met again in six years.
I would say my story is nothing new, from where I come. Thousands of young people—and a lot of younger kids—left the cities by buses, while older people and parents stayed and guarded their apartments and houses. A lot of families were damaged this way. I was 19 at the time.
I remember watching people bombing my city; bombing us daily. First you think, "What is this?" And then, somehow you get used to it, and you start functioning in that kind of madness. You would go to school, go shopping, even hang out with friends while there are these bombs around. After I left, it took me some time to realize how crazy all that was, and for my body to start to release that tension. Then you realize: No, that was not normal—and why did we pretend that we could survive that?
I just think that war in general, everywhere, is not a pleasant situation to be in. It's something that leaves very serious emotional damages. So I relate to that. And the fact that [Corrie] was born in a place that was safe and chose to go to a dangerous place and expose herself to that situation—that speaks to me. Because I survived something that I think is awful, and nobody should survive what I did survive. I relate to what she's emotionally going through.