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Regardless of politics, violence is appalling

August 05, 2007|By KATE COLEMAN

I saw the July 14 matinee performance of "My Name is Rachel Corrie," part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

As I wiped my tears and blew my nose while waiting for the rest of the audience to exit after the play, a woman walked up to me and asked, "Are you related to her?"

Although I might have displayed more emotion than anyone else in the 125-seat theater - something not unusual for me - her question surprised me. I don't think I bear any physical resemblance to actress Anne Marie Nest, who, in the title role, had in the previous 90 minutes succeeded in ripping my heart out.

I was moved by her portrayal of the 23-year-old American activist who was killed in 2003 in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer she was trying to block from demolishing a Palestinian home.

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I e-mailed Contemporary American Theater Festival founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen a few days after I saw "My Name is Rachel Corrie."

"I can't get it out of my head or heart," I told him. "Mission accomplished."

I can't imagine anyone - politics aside - not being moved by the story of the young woman whose diaries and e-mails (edited by actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner) became the dramatic monologue that debuted on a London stage in 2005.

The CATF production of the play was just the third in the United States.

Staging the play was controversial. Herendeen received hundreds of letters and e-mails protesting "Corrie's" production before the festival began. One board member resigned, a $100,000 pledge was pulled and campus police stood guard at Studio Theater doors during performances.

The festival program included two full-page paid advertisements. One declares that the play "does not tell the whole story." The other has photos of six women - ages 16 to 53 - who were killed by Palestinian terrorists.

The violence - all of it - horrifies me.

My fellow audience member asked me a second question: "Are you a supporter of the Palestinian cause?"

My answer: I am a supporter of the human cause.

Early in the play, Corrie recalls one of the rules hanging from the ceiling of her second-grade classroom: "Everyone must feel safe." She says it seems like it would be a good rule for life.

I agree.

Detractors have called Rachel Corrie naive. They most likely would say the same of me.

Several other lines in "My Name is Rachel Corrie" resonate. One in particular articulates something I've believed for as long as I can remember: "For a long time I've been operating from a certain core assumption that we are all essentially the same inside, and that our differences are by and large situational."

So what? Who cares what I - a klutzy, hypersensitive, middle-aged resident of Hagerstown - think?

I do, and I feel validated that I am not alone in thinking such a thought.

I have written previews of several of the festival's 17 seasons for this newspaper.

"We do serious work that we hope engages people - provokes people to think, causes an emotional and cerebral or intelligent response," Herendeen told me in 2002. The work requires active participation on the part of the audience, he added.

I understand the CATF mission: "The Contemporary American Theater Festival is dedicated to producing and developing new American theater."

Lofty?

You betcha.

Important?

I think so. I've seen 39 of the more than 60 plays produced since 1991.

I don't have the answers to the tough questions raised by "My Name is Rachel Corrie" or many of the other plays presented, but I believe they should be asked. I am grateful and proud, as a participating member of the audience, that the CATF is bold enough to ask them.

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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