by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – All Bethel College student Renee Reimer wanted to do was make a difference – even a small one.
In 2011, Reimer spent three weeks in Israel/Palestine with Professor of Bible and Religion Patricia Shelly’s biennial Jerusalem Seminar. She could not get the stories she heard – especially from Palestinians – out of her mind.
Two years later, in early 2013, Reimer with help from her theater instructor, Megan Upton-Tyner, performed the one-woman play My Name is Rachel Corrie at Bethel.
It is based on the journals and e-mail messages of an American college student who, as a member of the International Solidarity Movement, traveled to the Gaza Strip in 2003. She was killed after being run over by an armored bulldozer operated by the Israeli Defense Forces, while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home.
Reimer says the Jerusalem Seminar experience expanded and profoundly altered her knowledge of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Her hope for the performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie was that it would teach viewers something new and motivate them to talk about the issues – and, just maybe, to take action.
Apparently it has done that. Reimer is now taking My Name is Rachel Corrie on tour, due entirely to requests and subsequent generous financial donations, all pretty much out of the blue.
The tour starts with two more performances in south central Kansas, at Mennonite churches, leading up to a trip to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix. After that, Reimer will give the play in Mennonite churches in Reedley, Calif., rural Freeman, S.D., and finally her home congregation in Sioux Falls, S.D.
And both she and Upton-Tyner are more than pleased that Rachel Corrie’s parents, Cindy and Craig, will be present for the Phoenix performance. It will take place Thursday morning of the convention at 8, during the “Learning Experiences” which are heavily focused this year on issues of peace and justice.
Why the tour?
“The week before the [Bethel] performance, I got an e-mail from this guy in Reedley,” Reimer says. “He asked, ‘Do you want to come and perform it in California?’ I said, ‘Yes!’”
Upton-Tyner was a little more cautious, but then things started “just happening.”
Tom and Lois Harder, pastors of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, were part of Reimer’s Jerusalem Seminar group. After that, Tom Harder joined the Palestine Study Group in Wichita, which then invited Reimer to perform My Name is Rachel Corrie in the their area. That will now happen June 28 at Hope Mennonite Church.
First Mennonite Church in Newton asked if Reimer would give the play there, and that date is June 29. The performance at First Mennonite Church, Reedley, sponsored by the Reedley Peace Center, will be after the convention, on July 6.
Reimer knew that people at Sermon on the Mount Mennonite Church, Sioux Falls, where she grew up, wanted to see the play. When she contacted them about hosting it, “they were determined,” she says, to partner with a Freeman church for two performances, and got Salem Mennonite Church on board. The dates are July 8 and 9.
“We decided, ‘Let’s see if we can make this work,’” says Upton-Tyner, “so we’ve been working on making it happen.”
And it has meant work for Reimer and Upton-Tyner. Reimer’s performance has needed to evolve since that first one. There is a new set, which “will be smaller and more mobile, so we’re changing some of the blocking,” Reimer says.
“The set we’re creating is going to be completely packed down into a bag,” Upton-Tyner adds. “We’re asking churches to provide certain things like a white plastic chair and cement blocks.”
In addition, an unexpected aspect of Reimer’s first performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie was that she had to do it with a broken foot, using crutches. The injury resulted from a set-building accident in January. Now that her foot is back to normal, Reimer’s performance of the play “will be more abstract, with more use of the body,” she says.
And it also requires money. “Churches have to raise a certain amount to help pay royalties and transportation costs,” Reimer says. Freewill offerings taken at the performances will apply to expenses if needed but are mostly intended to go to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).
“When word got out that we were going to convention, a donor offered to pay the expenses,” Reimer says, “and when they heard it was going on tour, they gave more. Then a couple other people [added to that].”
“People are coming out of the woodwork,” Upton-Tyner says. “Someone asked if they could pay for the set. Renee’s passion [for this issue] is attracting a lot of attention, a lot of assistance, which is pretty humbling when you think about it.”
The seeds Reimer hoped to sow with the first performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie seem to be sprouting.
Tom Harder is part of a new group developed under the auspices of MC USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network that will be launched in Phoenix, with the goal of educating and involving the broader church on issues in Israel/Palestine.
Those connections may have helped get My Name is Rachel Corrie into the activities schedule for Thursday morning at the Phoenix convention.
They certainly resulted in Rachel Corrie’s parents, Cindy and Craig, being present for that performance.
Joy Lapp coordinates Friends of Sabeel, a Christian faith-based group concerned with rights for Palestinians. The Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church Peace Committee is now a chapter of Friends of Sabeel. Lapp knows the Corries and offered to pay their expenses to travel to Phoenix.
“Rachel’s parents coming adds a whole new set of excitement and nerves,” Reimer says.
“[The Corries] are very outspoken advocates for the issues the play raises,” Upton-Tyner says, adding that they have frequently gone to see performances of My Name is Rachel Corrie. “This is not uncommon, but it’s an incredible honor.”
Cindy and Craig Corrie will be available for conversation later on that Thursday at the convention.
“I dreamed about taking the play wider, but I didn’t think I really would,” Reimer admits. “Then people started talking about it [happening] and I started to get excited, too.”
“This is a testament to Renee’s passion and her vision,” says Upton-Tyner. “From the beginning, she said: ‘I want people to hear this story.’ And once it did, there was the ripple effect that includes her story, how she came to find the script and perform this play.
“When the community has an opportunity to put into action what’s in their hearts, wonderful things can happen. It’s just another example of how theater can change the world.”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.