Rajiv Joseph: I somehow see the play as more of a ghost story than a war story, in that the politics of the Iraq war act as a backdrop of the actual action and the characters and their kind of struggles in the play.
Jo Reed: That was Rajiv Joseph talking about his play: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed
Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo is a haunting play, set against the backdrop of the Iraq War. It's told from multiple perspectives: a Bengal tiger is the chief narrator, but there's also two American soldiers, their Iraqi translator and a host of spirits. The dead have just as much voice as the living, maybe more. it's a complicated work, with surreal elements, highly theatrical and deeply imaginative. In 2008, Rajiv's play was selected for the NEA's NEW PLAY DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM, which supports the process and production of new American Plays. In 2009, Bengal Tiger was presented in full production by the Center TheaterGroup in LA. In 2010, Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo was named a finalist for the Pultizer Prize in Drama.
I had a chance to talk Rajiv Josephrecently about the play and his career…here's our conversation . Congratulations, your play Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo was a finalist for the Pultizer Prize!
Rajiv Joseph: Yes, thank you. Thanks very much. Yeah, it's very exciting.
Jo Reed: Can you give me a brief summary of the play? To you. What is that story about?
Rajiv Joseph: The genesis of the story, came from a small Associated Press article in the New York Times back in 2003 that dealt with an event, an actual event, at the Baghdad Zoo shortly after the fall of Baghdad, where a soldier was trying to feed a Bengal tiger in a cage and his hand was bitten by the tiger, and so the other soldier shot and killed the tiger. And the story kind of was interesting and surreal and haunting to me, and I wrote a 10-minute play based on that, which was the two soldiers at the zoo, and then an actor speaking to the audience as a Bengal tiger, basically telling them in very plain terms how much it sucks to be a Bengal tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. And as that action plays and he's shot and killed at the end of the scene, his ghost rises up, and then for the rest of the play, he acts as kind of a guide for the audience as he wanders the streets of Baghdad, trying to figure out what's going on, and also trying to figure out why he's a ghost. And it follows him, the two other soldiers, and also an Iraqi translator who works with the military. And all of these individuals are either haunted, or as they die, become haunters in the play.
Jo Reed: This is a play in which even the dead have no peace.
Rajiv Joseph: Yes. That's absolutely true. That's the crux of the play, especially for the tiger, and the other ghosts as they kind of accumulate. By the end of the first act, half the cast is dead, and yet they're more active than ever, and changing at a rapidly increasing pace, and many of them are struggling to figure out, "Well, what next?" I think many people cling to the idea of life after death as a comforting notion, and the play kind of explores the concept of: okay, you're alive after death, but then you still don't know what to do with yourself, and you have to figure out, "Well, what am I going to do, just wander around for all of eternity?" And that's the questions and the kind of religious existential quandaries that these characters find themselves in in the story.
Jo Reed: You know, I'm not being glib at all, but I kept thinking of Hamlet saying, "The rest is silence," and thinking, "He really should see this play.”
Rajiv Joseph: Absolutely. We actually talked about Hamlet a lot when I was in rehearsals with the director, Moises Kaufman, who's a brilliant writer and director and was instrumental in the kind of development of the story and this play, and instrumental in finding its life. And Moises and I both work in a way in which disparate texts of other plays and works of literature and poetry and film are always kind of allowed to flow into the room. And so we spent a good deal of time this past rehearsal process talking about the last page of The Great Gatsby. We spent a lot of time talking about Tony Kushner's piece, Angels in America. We talked about Hamlet. We talked about The Terminator. We talked about Jurassic Park. I mean, all these things kind of filter in.
Jo Reed: A little Pulp Fiction.
Rajiv Joseph: A little Pulp Fiction also never, never hurts the cause.
Jo Reed: It also seems to me that Bengal Tiger is a play of translation, about the act of translating.
Rajiv Joseph: It absolutely is a play about translation. That seems to me one of the deeper ideas and themes of the play. First and foremost that one of the main characters, the Iraqi character, Musa, is a translator for the military. But within that kind of job that he has, we have several scenes in the play where one character stands between two others and tries to facilitate communication and understanding, and it seems to me that that's an important act. It's something that fascinates me because it is so often faulty, particularly in moments of great stress and moments of great conflict. We're already in a war situation and in watching the scenes in this play, it's always interesting to me to watch the actors play with this idea, because as an audience, we're hearing languages that we don't understand. And there's no subtitles or supertitles used in the play, by my prescription, that it's important for the audience to me to be part of that confusion and to be part of the tension that builds when people cannot communicate.
Jo Reed: Well, I'd like to talk about the development of the play, because it was part of the NEA's New Play Development program.
Rajiv Joseph: Absolutely right.
Jo Reed: Can you talk about the program from your perspective?
Rajiv Joseph: Well, we were one of, I think, four plays to receive this grant from the NEA. The trick with a new play and a new piece of theater, and especially for someone like me, I'm still trying to find my way in the world of theater and trying to establish myself as a playwright. And especially when this started and Center Theater Group decided to do Bengal Tiger, they had never heard of me, they didn't know my work. They happened to find this play across their desk and decided that it was worth doing. What that grant helped us with was, a) this is kind of a-- for this show to be done correctly, or at least and the way it was done in Los Angeles, it allowed us to kind of expand the scope of the physical presentation of the play by creating a set and creating props that were going to kind of allow the story to grow around them in a way. And so to me, part of the beauty of this production, both productions in Los Angeles, were the design elements of it, that really strike a chord I think with the audience. Beyond that, with that grant, we were able to have extra readings, we were able to have more rehearsal time. All of these types of things helps this play, because I was doing rewritings of it through rehearsals, through the preview performances. And with new plays, it's always just so important that a playwright has the time and the space and the support to be able to allow that play to grow if it needs to. And this is a play that has continued to grow, and even as we remounted it this past spring after a very successful run the previous spring, I continued to do rewrites. And it seemed to me that with that NEA grant, the play was put in a position where, on all counts, it was allowed to be as big as it wanted to be.
Jo Reed: You know, this play moves through so many worlds. We have a human world. We have an animal world. Musa was a gardener and created topiary. There's Baghdad. There's the desert. There's this life. There's the afterlife. Can you talk about navigating through all these separate realities, I mean translating if you will all these different worlds?
Rajiv Joseph: Absolutely. I mean, when I think back to the initial inspiration for the play, and now I can step away from where I was when I was writing it and think about: what was it precisely that interested me in that story? And I think that there's these intersections of two worlds that are coming together in many ways, and I think to me, you could talk about the intersection of America and Iraq. You could talk about the intersection of the dead and the living. And then you could kind of also the intersection of the primal and the political, which was what that article seemed to me to be kind of exploring, in that there's these political events that kind of rule our lives, that push people in different directions, that control destinies, that control the way the world works. And we think about these political things every day by reading the paper and watching the news, and you know, ruminating on them. And no matter where you might live, the political world shifts us and shapes us. On the other hand, the primal world does as well. And by primal, I don't just mean tigers in the jungle or tigers in the zoo, but I think I mean the kind of most basic human impulses that also rule our lives, that make us who we are, that doom us, are the things that haunt us, that have shaped us from the time we were very little. And I think that when those two things collide, the political forces of the world and the primal nature of one's own being, sparks fly, and, at least in the dramatic form, you have something that is hopefully quite provocative and interesting. And to me, that intersection of the primal and the political has been the guiding force for me as the playwright.
Jo Reed: Are you surprised by the life that this play has?
Rajiv Joseph: I'm stunned by the life this play has. Moises would say to me as we sat there before the first preview, before opening night, looking up at the gorgeous set that had been created in this beautiful theater in Los Angeles, he's like, "Isn't it amazing that this all came from your imagination, this all came from your sitting in your room and writing?" And that's always the extraordinary moment I think for a playwright is to think that, "I was sitting there in graduate school back in 2003 and sketching out this scene, and now, seven years later, I'm able to sit in this gorgeous, historic theater in Los Angeles and see it fill up with people, and see people respond to this in such an exciting way."
Jo Reed: You were brought tissue in Cleveland, Ohio, or outside of Cleveland, Ohio?
Rajiv Joseph: Yeah, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Jo Reed: Did you come from a family that loved theater?
Rajiv Joseph: Yes. My parents, while not ever involved in theater, are huge fans of the arts in every level. They love classical music. My dad and my mom both love rock and roll. They have a great record collection. They took us to the theater. They took us to the orchestra. They took us to dance concerts. And I think most of us, we loved movies, and we talked about movies, and we rented movies, and we watched movies as a family. And not just my parents, but my extended family. Family dinners, Thanksgiving, would always end up talking about the movies that we've all been seeing, and that's when everyone really just perks up and starting getting involved in the conversation. So I did come from a family that valued that, and I think that that's definitely what's shaped both my brother and my lives, because my brother's a professional musician playing for the Buffalo Philharmonic now.
Jo Reed: You spent three years in the Peace Corps in Senegal. What made you decide you wanted to go to the Peace Corps?
Rajiv Joseph: It had been something that I had wanted to do a good deal of my life before I had the opportunity to go. When I was younger, my mom's sister served in the Peace Corps and ended up meeting her husband at a Peace Corps event after they had both gotten out; he had also served. So I had always known about it from them. And then in high school, I had three history teachers, three years in a row, who all had served in the Peace Corps in Africa. And they talked about their experiences so much as part of their curriculum. And it always seemed to me just an adventure, and something that was so worthwhile doing and such an interesting thing to do, especially for someone like myself. As I went through college, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I had a vague notion that I wanted to write, but I didn't know what to write about, and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to take myself out of a comfort zone, to have an adventure, to have something to write about. And it turned out to be the case, and then so much more. And it was the best three years of my life.
Jo Reed: Talk about what you brought back from that experience.
Rajiv Joseph: Well, interesting you say that. I mean, the notion of language barrier and trying to communicate and trying to express yourself I know firsthand to be a stressful experience, especially when you first arrive in Peace Corps and your first year of service you really struggle with the language, and you're put in a village or in a town where no one speaks maybe not even French, which I had some background of, not a huge background. But I was speaking a local language called Mandinka, and I struggled with it, and I found myself in many situations where I was either unable to communicate, or thinking I was communicating something, communicating something totally different. And those experiences definitely led me to understand that kind of stress, and led me also towards, I think, being more aware and more conscious of the way different cultures exist. That was part of the reason I went to begin with. I think we live in an isolated country, and I think it's really helpful for everyone to kind of step out of that and see how other places in the world exist.
Jo Reed: What drew you to theater specifically?
Rajiv Joseph: It was accidental. I came back from the Peace Corps thinking I wanted to write, still, but still struggling to find my medium. And I thought that I was going to write film. I still was very passionate about movies, and felt-- I had some friends working in the industry in Los Angeles, and I thought, "You know, if I can just write a good screenplay that could start happening for me." And so I decided to go to graduate for that, and I went into the dramatic writing program at New York University, and I was accepted on the basis of a screenplay that I wrote. And fortunately at that time, the Tisch School, the dramatic writing program, made students take both playwriting and screenwriting classes. And that's how I kind of fell into playwriting. It was a mode of writing that appealed to me a lot more than screenwriting, a different type of storytelling. And additional, through the university, we got a lot of free tickets to go see theater, and I started seeing theater that I had never seen before, and there were a couple of plays that really had a profound impact on me and made me think that this was the type of art form that was going to appeal to me.
Jo Reed: What plays?
Rajiv Joseph: The two plays that kind of came around at precisely those moments where I was trying to decide what I wanted to do, whether screenwriting or playwriting, were the play Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, and the play Our Lady of 121st Street, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. And in the case of Our Lady of 121st Street, here was a play, an ensemble cast of about 11 characters, who had all gathered back in their old neighborhood, 121st Street in New York, and there was such a multicultural and multiracial cast in a play that had nothing to do with race or ethnicity. It had to do with a neighborhood, and it had to do with friendship. And that was refreshing and exciting to me, because I'm multiracial. My father's Indian and my mother's white, and I grew up in a neighborhood that was very diverse, both religiously and ethnically and racially, and it's my experience that those things oftentimes are not the primary reason why you tell a story. So if you have a story that has a multiracial cast, you don't have to tell a story that's about race. And that was an exciting revelation to me.
Jo Reed: Your play Gruesome Playground Injuries is about to open at the Woolly Mammoth here in Washington, DC. It had its world premiere in Houston, Texas.
Rajiv Joseph: That's right. At the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas. And the Alley Theater has recently rededicated themselves to finding and developing and producing new works by new playwrights. And they're a phenomenally exciting regional theater.
Jo Reed: Tell me just very briefly about Gruesome. What inspired that story?
Rajiv Joseph: That play is a play about a guy and a girl over the course of 30 years of their life and their friendship. They meet in the first grade and it goes until they're 38. And it jumps around in time. And essentially it's kind of a tragic, comic love story, in which this boy loves this girl and is trying to get her attention and trying to get her to love him. And when she resists, his way of dealing with that is by getting into accidents, as it were. Whether they're conscious or unconscious, he, at the start of every scene, has injured himself in a kind of gruesome, as the title suggests, way, and she's constantly coming back to him. Now, what really inspired it was really just a conversation with a friend of mine who I've known all my life who, over drinks one night, was just telling me about all the crazy injuries that I didn't know he had endured over the course of his life that were so bizarre that they ended up telling their own story of his life. And it occurred to me that you could track someone's life through the course of their injuries. And if you could do that, you could track a relationship through the course of its pitfalls.
Jo Reed: And now it's about to open at the Woolly Mammoth. How much tinkering are you doing?
Rajiv Joseph: Not much. I did a little bit, but just a few lines here and there. This is a play unlike Bengal Tiger, which I've done just so many revampings and rewrites over the course of the years and even over the course of the two productions. Bengal Tiger is a much-- it's not-- I don't want to say bigger-- but in having a much larger cast and having a much larger sweeping kind of reality that there's a lot more, that that play can go in a million different directions. And Gruesome is a much more intimate play, two characters. The structure is very exact. And so you could never just take this play and add a new scene without damaging the entire body of it. And so any changes that you would make would be minute.
Jo Reed: You're 35, correct?
Rajiv Joseph: Yes.
Jo Reed: Lord knows how many plays you've written, but five of your plays already have been produced.
Rajiv Joseph: Yes.
Jo Reed: That seems like a lot to me.
Rajiv Joseph: I've had a good run since I got out of grad school. I got lucky when I got out, and I got a play done at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village in something called the Mentor Project, where three new plays are selected by three established playwrights who mentor them over the course of the year, and they're given a workshop production at the end of that. And since that, for me, which was my first play, Huck and Holden, one thing has led to another. And always the interesting thing to me about playwriting and why I was happy I selected that as my discipline in grad school was that in playwriting, at least in New York, there's so many different gradations and variations of what you could call success, for me at least, getting out of grad school. You could get a reading here; you could get a fellowship there. You could get a roundtable reading just with a couple of actors that you know around town at a coffee shop or at someone's apartment. You might get a production here and there. And all of those little things just psychologically you think, "I have something going on. Somebody's interested in hearing my work. This is going to lead to something else." And it always seemed to me that screenwriting, a discipline that I still hope to pursue one day, it's kind of an all or nothing gig. You either sell it or you don't, and there aren't any organizations out there that are willing to help a screenwriter develop his screenplay without any strings attached. And so that can make screenwriting a more daunting profession, it seems to me, than playwriting, even though once you do sell that screenplay, the financial reward is far greater than a play. Even so, what's helped me over the past few years since I got out of grad school is a constant knowledge that even if I don't have a production going on, I can get something going. I can get these pages read by somebody. I can go to the Lark Play Development Center in New York, where I'm a member, they've helped develop all of my plays, and they'll help me bring in some actors just to hear some pages. And all of those things are really helpful for writers, because it's all about getting your work out there. To me, at least, it's about getting responses to what you're writing so that you don't feel all alone in the world, you don't feel that you're work is just falling on deaf ears.
Jo Reed: Well, I would think theater, well, certainly film as well, but theater is one of the most collaborative of all the arts.
Rajiv Joseph: Absolutely, yeah. It's very collaborative. And with producers, with drama troupes, with directors, with designers, and especially with actors, you have a lot of voices chiming in. And to me, that's the beauty of it. I rely on it, and I love that aspect of it.
Jo Reed: That was Rajiv Joseph. We were talking about his career in the theatre, including his play the 2010 Pulitzer Prizee finalist, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. You've been listening to Art Works. The music is "Khosh Reng" written and performed by Amir El Saffar from the cd, Two Rivers, used courtesy of Pi Recordings.
The Arts Work Podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, Muscial Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert talks about his first season with the orchestra. To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking the Art Works blog, or Follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.