Controversial play should foster dialogue, Jewish Congress says

In 2003, American activist Rachel Corrie died protesting the demolition of a Palestinian house on the Gaza Strip. In 2006, a play based on her diaries premiered in London, England. Niki Landau, the artistic director of Theatre Panik, wants Torontonians to experience the play.

“It was put on three times in London and it won several awards there,” she said.

The play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, has drawn a negative response from the members of some Jewish communities.

Esther Arbeid is the film and theatre program coordinator at the Toronto Jewish Community Centre (JCC). She hopes that when the play opens in Toronto, the JCC can help facilitate a neutral, informed debate about the play and the issues surrounding it.

“I don’t think that there’s a reason to be nervous about art,” Arbeid said. “We don’t have a political agenda in our cultural program . . . If you’re going to speak out against something, one should do so after they’ve done all their research and they know what they’re talking about.”

My Name is Rachel Corrie attracted controversy in North America when a large theatre company in New York and CanStage in Toronto cancelled their plans to stage it. Theatre Panik will show the play in Toronto beginning May 29.

Meanwhile, the JCC has scheduled a theatre forum for May 15 to discuss the play and the issues surrounding it.

Artistic Director Landau said that she feels most of the people who believe the play will spark anti-Israeli sentiment haven’t read or seen it. At the same time, she noted that as a work of art, a one-woman play cannot be expected to be entirely neutral or tell all the sides of a very complicated story.

“I think there are people in the Jewish community, and I am part of the Jewish community, that are afraid that the play is going to make people have anti-Israeli feelings,” she said. “They’re worried that because she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer that that’s damaging to Israel . . . They’re worried that it’s one sided, and they’re not wrong. It’s not the Palestinian side, but it’s the side of one activist.”

Jordan Kerbel, a spokesperson for the Canadian Jewish Congress, said that any informed debate that the play fosters should be seen in a positive light.

“As long as people realize that it’s one person’s view, from what one person saw, I see no problem with the play being put on. Anything that encourages open debate is a good thing.”

Landau said that the controversy surrounding the play in North America generally means that only smaller theatre companies can take a chance on it.

“We don’t have a board of directors to say ‘don’t do it’ and we don’t have subscribers to get upset,” she said.

The play’s success in London alone, she added, warrants a chance for Toronto theatre-goers to see the play.

“It was put on 3 times in London and it won several awards there,” she said. “Once there’s a major urban centre that finds it worthwhile, it’s hard to say that Toronto doesn’t deserve the same opportunity.”