Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened March 31 on Broadway, heralds the arrival of compelling new voice in the American theater. And it’s not just because the production has snagged A-list comedian Robin Williams to play the title role, or because the play was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. This surrealistic dark comedy, set in the early months of the U.S. occupation of Iraq’s capital city, is a bold and vividly theatrical take on issues and concerns that face Americans in the 21st century. The buzz about the 36-year-old Ohio-born writer has been building for some years now. His first play, Huck and Holden, debuted Off Broadway in 2005. Numerous awards and grants, as well as productions of his plays in theaters across the country, followed. Bengal Tiger, his most powerful play to date, has been given a gripping and imaginative production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, twice in Los Angeles and now in New York at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I spoke with Joseph last month, when the play was still in previews.
What started you on Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo?
The initial impulse was a small article at the back of the paper about an incident at the Baghdad zoo that I read in 2003. I was in my second year of grad school at NYU and I wrote it as a 10-minute play, but no one seemed to really think much of it, so I just put it away in my drawer. It just sat there for about two years. But I would always go back to it and reread it and think, “Oh, I like this play very much.” Ultimately I decided to make it into a full-length play and started writing it in earnest in 2005. We were still enmeshed in that war at the time. A lot of other things also went into the writing of the play. We were occupying Bagdad and there were still so many questions and so many confusing stories coming out of that region. There was an article about a leper colony outside of Baghdad, there was an article about Uday Hussein and the guns that he had, how they were all gold. So I was just raking all these different notions that were coming out of those stories and I wanted to put them together in a dramatic format.
What was it about the tiger in the zoo that that intrigued you?
I think, ultimately, it’s that animals in the setting of war is a particularly poignant aspect of war. There’s been a lot written about this, especially about animals in zoos, but also about animals everywhere who are caught in the midst of war. It seems to highlight, I guess, the folly of human conflict. So then to give the animal a voice is to give the primal a voice. And by having the tiger as the narrator of this play, I have a strictly apolitical voice. I think it’s the guard that keeps it from being polemic—and what keeps it from being a nationalistic play about war. In fact, it makes it more a dialogue between the primal versus the civilized, and the living and the dead. Those kind of issues were more interesting to me than simply Iraq versus the United States.
Have your feelings about Iraq changed since you first started working on Bengal Tiger?
What inspired this play was also being an American citizen during that time period when we were up to our neck in Iraq. The thing for me, as a regular American citizen who is not in the military and doesn’t know anybody in the military, is that we only have media outlets to help us guide our way. And then eventually we have art. It wasn’t that I set out to tell a story that was going to be better than any of the media. In fact, it was the opposite of that. What started this play was my own figuring out for myself on the page: Let me see if I can imagine what it must be like to be a soldier, what it must be like to be an Iraqi translator, what it must be like to be a tiger. I wouldn’t be thinking about Iraq in the same way right now, but it remains a strong part of our reality. We can’t erase what happened. And it is still very much a part of what this country is, what Iraq is, and what the Middle East is. So I find that the play’s relevance doesn’t waver.
How do you feel about the play’s high-profile journey here to New York? What did you think about Robin Williams taking over the part of the Tiger for the Broadway production?
It’s been astonishing. The Pulitzer finalist, that was a huge shocker for me. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I felt very lucky about that and equally lucky when I found that Robin Williams was interested in doing this play. It was one of those amazing moments—something I haven’t totally absorbed yet. The play was optioned by Broadway producers after the first production in Los Angeles [in 2009] under a big if: if we could get a movie star to be in it. I understood that it was the business of being on Broadway. We had a wonderful cast and the guy [Kevin Tighe] who played the Tiger in L.A. was incredible. There’s definitely a bitter-sweetness about losing Kevin, who was a huge part of our process and a huge part of our team. But we still have a very good relationship and he also understood the business of it. It’s only the role in the play that a star would take.
In this production we got really lucky because we have a star who is so well suited for this role. I’ve always been a huge fan of Robin Williams and I’m so delighted that he’s in the play. So we’re not losing anything. We’re gaining a whole new take on it, which has changed the play in interesting ways. I’m also delighted that we were able to keep the rest of the cast from L.A. The wonderful thing about Robin is that he gravitated toward the material and he joined this process with an enormous amount of humility toward the team that was in place. He has worked his butt off to occupy this role, and he’s doing it in a marvelous way.
But, you know, I think the real thing that we have going for us in this production is that it’s the third year now that we’ve been doing it. And we have been a family and on this road together. So it doesn’t feel to me like I woke up one morning and I was on Broadway. It feels like there has been a lot of work that has led, very fortunately, to the highest profile stage in the country. There’s a lot that goes into that: it’s my work, it’s my luck, and it’s also the work of great people like [director] Moisés Kaufman, these actors, and these producers who are also very devoted to showing a play like this on Broadway.
You’ve been working on several other plays while writing Bengal Tiger. Besides Gruesome Playground Injuries, which was produced earlier this year Off Broadway, are there any others?
Yes. Bengal Tiger has had this long process and I don’t’ work on just one thing at once. Gruesome had two productions before the one here in New York. And I’ve been working for about six years on my play The North Pool, which is currently at TheaterWorks in Palo Alto, California. And, there’s a new play, called Monster at the Door, which opens in May at the Alley Theater [in Houston]. As a playwright you try to keep a lot of pots on the boil and you see if they can get done.
Could you describe the new plays?
The North Pool is about a detention in a public high school in America that plays in real time. It’s [between] the vice principal and this student, who’s Middle Eastern, who had transferred from a very exclusive prep school into this public high school. He is there for detention because he skipped class but then the vice principal starts leveling these other charges at him. You think at first maybe it’s racial profiling, but in fact it’s not. It’s a cat-and-mouse type of thriller in which my goal is to keep the audience on their toes.
Monster at the Door is a play that I’ve been writing for a couple of years and is a much different play. The backdrop is a giant financial corporation, but to say that it is in any way about the financial crisis of the country would be misleading. It’s actually a much more fantastical story about a woman who experiences a violent metaphysical act that makes half her body into a sort of monster. That’s the essential gist of that play.
Your plays are quite dissimilar from each other and they often feature ethnically diverse characters as well. Any thoughts on this?
If I’m going to have lot of pots on the boil, I want them to be different meals. So I’m never really writing about the same thing. If there is some essential underlying theme to all my plays, it’s a mystery to me. It’s going to be up to someone else to determine what that is. I also appreciate stories—plays, films, TV shows—in which in a multicultural population is seen but without it having to be about race. So with Suresh in my play Animals Out of Paper [about an origami prodigy] it’s never about him being Indian—he just is. From a very simple perspective, there’s enough American plays with all white people in it.
Would you say your own racially mixed background has something to do with your interest in multicultural characters?
You can’t help it. My father is from Kerala [South India]. I grew up in Cleveland. I have an Indian name and I look just a little bit different. Growing up I didn’t encounter a whole lot of racism per se, but there’s certainly a different background there. I have two halves of my family. I have my white American family and I have my Indian family. I have relatives who live in Delhi and Bombay. I understand myself being of both those worlds. So it only makes sense that my plays reflect that in some way.
Bengal Tiger certainly reflects the experience of encountering and communicating with a different culture. Can you comment on the scenes which are spoken in Arabic without any translation?
I don’t speak Arabic. We had a woman and a young man, who were from Iraq, who helped us with that in Los Angeles. They not only translated the text but they also transliterated it so it could be read phonetically. They also recorded it onto a CD so the actors had something to hear and be able to pronounce it correctly. Even now we have a dialect coach who helps the actors with their pronunciation. Iraqi Arabic is profoundly different from other kinds of Arabic.
When you look at what was happening in Iraq during the war, I think one of the huge problems that we were obviously going to face was that American soldiers don’t speak Arabic. So when they go into places and they want to question people they have no way of communicating, especially under high stress situations in which combat is involved. That lack of communication, or what is lost in translation, can result in violent acts. It was a striking notion of this particular war, the need for translations. And so the translator in the play has a very important role. I wanted to see acts of translation and I wanted the audience to understand that confusion. And that’s why none of the Arabic [in the production] has supertitles. On a deeper level, the play is about other sorts of translation: The translations between the ghosts and the living, which is kind of a haunting process. So we see most of these characters in the play die and remain alive, or remain sentient. I feel like that movement from the living into the dead is, in and of itself, a form of translation that these characters are trying to negotiate.
You have talked elsewhere about your three-year stint with the Peace Corps in Senegal. Did that have a big impact on you?
Absolutely. I went to Senegal [in 1997] mainly to get some life experience, to see new things and have an adventure. It was a perfect time in my life to go. I had just graduated from college and I had lived a pretty sheltered existence until then. Those were the most important years of my life in many ways, partly because I was growing up. It was a transformative thing. To live on my own in a very remote village without electricity and running water, and I didn’t speak the language. All of these things obviously changed the way I operated on a day-to-day basis.
You were brought up Catholic, so I guess the religious culture in Senegal was also something new and unfamiliar for you.
Yes. I became part of a Muslim culture and felt I understood at least the code by which people lived there, and so it became part of who I am. I celebrated Tabaski [Festival of Sacrifice], I observed Ramadan, I fasted.
Would you say this transformative experience in West Africa has shaped your writing as well?
Particularly in Bengal Tiger, which is, among other things, about the clash of two cultures. I feel I have some firsthand understanding of being an American abroad, being an American in a Muslim country. That’s something that was deeply affecting to me when I came back. I was living among a community that were among the most generous and loving people that I had ever met. I had lived for three years among Muslims in a Muslim country and I had grown very attached to their habits and customs and daily prayers. So to come home and after 9/11 to be faced with—and it feels even more acute in some ways today—the anti-Islamic rhetoric that runs rampant in this country, I still feel very offended by all that. The play doesn’t address it directly, but obviously Iraq is a Muslim country. There’s a moment where the call to prayer is heard from minarets all over the city. There is something about the sound of that I feel very attached to.
There’s also a moment in the play when the American soldier begins speaking Arabic, which I find extremely poignant. I like the tableau of it—seeing a dead American soldier walk through this arch speaking to God in Arabic. It signifies to me the ghosts in this play; their minds and hearts open up and they understand the world in a more profound way. I think part of that profundity is the melding of language and the melding of culture. In art, in the theater, you can create moments like that, which I think are so much harder to create in the real world. That’s part of the delight in writing a play and seeing it produced on a level like this.