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Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist killed by an IDF bulldozer in March 2003, has achieved an afterlife on the stages of London.
The Skies are Weeping, a classical music piece inspired by the American protester, will have its world premiere Tuesday night at the Hackney Empire theater, just three days after another production, My Name is Rachel Corrie, concludes its second run at the city's prestigious Royal Court Theatre. A protest registered with the Metropolitan Police will take place outside the premiere, with pro-Israel activists highlighting the "other Rachels," Israeli girls and women who died in suicide bombings during the second intifada.
The best known Rachel in the conflict, Corrie died trying to prevent a house demolition in the southern Gaza Strip, an incident that let loose a flood of controversy and made the her the most famous female casualty of the last five years of fighting. Critics have portrayed her as foolishly naive or as a supporter of Palestinian terrorism, but the two artistic works portray the blonde college student in the opposite light, as a selfless and innocent martyr for peace.
More than a year after its intended world debut in Alaska, The Skies are Weeping will debut as part of a two-hour show organized by Deborah Fink, who will also sing the production's soprano role. Written by Philip Munger, an adjunct music lecturer at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, the performance will feature a choir of 16 singers and has attracted endorsements from patrons including outspoken MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, film actress Julie Christie and last month's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, English playwright Harold Pinter. None of those patrons will be at the show's premiere, Fink said, though the audience will include British MK Clare Short and former MK Jenny Tonge, who ignited controversy last year with remarks about Palestinian suicide bombers that included the statement, "If I had to live in [the Palestinian territories] I might just consider becoming one myself."
According to Fink, "quite a few tickets" for The Skies are Weeping were still available two days before the cantata's premiere, though she added that "I think a lot of people are going to buy tickets on the day." The member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians said that the Hackney Empire wouldn't necessarily open all of its 1,289 seats for the show, but noted that "we don't need a full house to cover costs."
The timing of the contata's premiere was "an absolute coincidence," Fink said, despite coming less than a week after the final performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a hit one-woman show developed from the young activist's diaries by an editor of The Guardian and actor Alan Rickman, whose film credits include Die Hard and the Harry Potter movies. The show's sold-out first run at the Royal Court Theatre in April led to a second run in October in the theater's slightly larger Jerwood Theatre Downstairs venue. Fink said she had been allowed to pass out flyers for The Skies are Weeping outside the second-run performances of My Name is Rachel Corrie, but that she believed the play's producers "wanted to keep it separate" from The Skies are Weeping.
English supporters of Israel were less than thrilled about My Name is Rachel Corrie, which, like its protagonist's diary, paints a harsh view of Israel while paying significantly less attention to Palestinian violence in the conflict. Jonny Paul, the organizer of Tuesday's protest outside the debut of The Skies are Weeping, said that news of another Corrie-themed production inspired him to act on behalf of the "other Rachels."
Describing himself as a "concerned citizen" worried about Israel's image among the British public, Paul called Corrie's death a "tragic event, a senseless loss," but took issue with her "being groomed as a martyr" in the play and cantata. My Name is Rachel Corrie set a "dangerous precedent," he said, "because it only shows one side of the coin."
He criticized The Skies are Weeping in similar terms, saying it "totally ignores the Israeli victims of suicide attacks and other terrorist attacks."
Paul said he was organizing the protest independently of Jewish and pro-Israel groups, though he had sent e-mails about it to organizations including the Zionist Federation, the Union of Jewish Students and the New Israel Fund. He initially told London police he expected 50 participants at the protest, but he said Sunday that a "fantastic" e-mail response suggested the number would be closer to 100. Among the e-mails was a message of support from the mother of Rachel Phaler, an "Israeli Rachel" blown up in a suicide bombing at a pizzeria in Karnei Shomron in February 2002.
Fink didn't dispute the cantata's singular emphasis on Corrie, but said balance wasn't a concern for her. "I think they [protest participants] are trying to twist what the concert is about," she said. "They keep talking about 'other Rachels.' There are a lot of Palestinians not named Rachel who've died in this ... I see the Israelis as indirect victims of the occupation. I don't think they have anything to protest about."
Asked about the value of a concert dedicated to an Israeli, Fink continued, "I wouldn't want to join, it wouldn't be important to me. I don't want to add to people's perception that they are the main victims. They are victims, but they are victims of the occupation and the Sharon government, indirectly."
Philip Munger, composer of The Skies are Weeping, was more receptive to the idea of an artistic production about Israelis killed in the conflict. "Someone should [write one]," he said. "I'm not stopping anybody from writing any music about any Rachel they want." He said a website with pictures of Israelis killed during the intifada "really shook me, I just started crying."
Paul disagreed with the idea of writing a play or musical work about an "Israeli Rachel," however, saying such a work risked exploiting the victim's memory and suffering. Referring to Rachel Corrie, he asked, "Would she want her name to be used for a performance, to be used to attack Israel? The Jewish community wouldn't write a play about an Israeli 'Rachel' - it wouldn't be provocative like that."
Though he doesn't believe in countering the Corrie productions with one about an Israeli victim, Paul said he thinks British supporters of Israel are not responding adequately to what he sees as artistic and political attacks on Israel. "We're trying to tackle hasbara (public diplomacy for Israel) in a different way," he said. "We've just had enough of it."
An e-mail publicizing Tuesday's protest said it would "be peaceful and level-headed," with Paul adding in an interview that activists' focus should be on "getting the two sides together, on promoting dialogue." He noted that Christians including members of Anglicans for Israel had pledged their participation in the protest.
Munger said he was "pumped" about the cantata's imminent performance, a year after he canceled its scheduled premiere at the University of Alaska following a stormy townhall meeting he had organized to discuss its content with members of the public. While there are no specific plans to stage the cantata after tomorrow night's premiere, Munger said he plans to be in touch with groups in Dublin and four American cities who have expressed interest in producing it.
He said he isn't bothered by the protest outside the cantata's premiere. "They have rights to their opinions just as I do," he said. "If there are any seats left, I'm going to invite anyone outside to come in and listen. I'll pay for their seats."