A Conversation with Rajiv Joseph

Rajiv Joseph, playwright, screenwriter and teacher, seems quiet and unassuming for a man whose work explores the dark and twisted cultural territory of war and the nature of death.

Fine Arts Communications - 05 December 2012

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright By Lucy Collingwood, MFA Directing candidate

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
By Lucy Collingwood, MFA Directing candidate

Rajiv Joseph, playwright, screenwriter and teacher, seems quiet and unassuming for a man whose work explores the dark and twisted cultural territory of war and the nature of death.


At 38, Joseph has an impressive list of artistic accomplishments under his belt. He has written for Broadway and Off-Broadway venues and won numerous awards, including the Paula Vogel award for emerging playwrights, the Whiting Writers' Award and the 2009 Kesselring Fellowship.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, perhaps his most famous work, was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2010. The play took around five years to complete, first making its way to the Broadway stage in 2009, a very different animal from where it began. Here at the Timms Centre for its Canadian premiere, the play takes place in a bizarre intersection of worlds, an ambiguous space where the living and the dead clash in a dreamlike mess of confusion and miscommunication.

Speaking from New York in the midst of Hurricane Sandy, Joseph's commentary is punctuated with the sounds of helicopters pounding overhead. When asked about the earliest genesis of the script, Joseph thinks carefully before he speaks.

"This is based on a real story. What first sparked me to this idea was an actual article in the newspaper, it was an article about these two soldiers guarding the zoo, and one tried to feed the tiger and the tiger bit his hand off and the other soldier shot and killed the tiger. A tiny little article in the New York Times back page that struck me as so surreal and bizarre and sad and that's what launched the whole piece."

The original incarnation of the Tiger script, a ten minute play Joseph wrote in graduate school, was awarded a New Play Development Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Through an in-rehearsal work-shopping process, Joseph adapted the short piece into a full-length, surrealist exploration of life, death and the search for God.

Lead by the eponymous Tiger, the play takes place in war-torn Iraq, focusing on the fundamental cultural clash between the American soldiers and Iraqi citizens. As we move through the dreamlike landscape, the Tiger begins to obsess over the violence and the cruelty of the war. Joseph sets up the Tiger as theatrically human, walking on two feet, but at the same he personifies the animal world. The Tiger is a lens through which we can observe and examine the inhuman effects of war. "I was interested in the Tiger's voice and I was interested in the perspective of an animal, of like a caged animal, in a war setting. So the Iraq war [was] something that I was curious and disturbed about and wanting to think about and contemplate through writing a play... [I knew] I would be limited in it because I've never been to Iraq, I'm not Iraqi, I'm not a soldier, so I found it useful and interesting to take the perspective of an animal, because the animal of course is going to have no knowledge of anything and can serve as an apolitical narrator."
This type of commentary calls for a certain level of accuracy and truth in its representation of Iraq and Iraqi culture, even considering the dreamlike, surrealist quality of the play. Joseph conducted exhaustive research to bring honesty and candor to the more realistic segments of the piece. Much of the play is delivered in Iraqi Arabic, for which purpose Joseph worked alongside translators Ammar Ramzi and Raida Fahmi to produce accurate, specific language that captures the dialect of Iraq."I worked with some Iraqis to do the translation and then I had the opportunity to actually have a bunch of Iraqi nationals that were at one of the performances in Los Angeles and on Broadway and to talk to them afterwards and they all responded very positively to it, which I was very happy about. It was very important to me that people from Iraq who saw it did appreciate it."

Layering the Iraqi dialect with the English has provided a very difficult and unique challenge for the fourth year bachelor of fine arts acting students, who learned the text with no prior training or experience with the language. The language barrier is an important hurdle, however, as communication (or the lack thereof) is a prevalent issue in the play. In fact, the script specifically requests that there should be no subtitles for the Arabic, so that the communication barrier will be manifest for most of the audience as well. The characters' names are likewise miscommunicated and obscured by both soldiers and Iraqi nationals alike.

"It seems like no one in this play actually calls anybody by their real names, except for Tom and Kev, they call Musa 'Habib', he calls them 'Johnny,' Uday calls [Musa] 'Mansour,' and it kind of underscores this lack of communication and understanding and the willingness to engage with others," Joseph said.

Indeed, when the world is split between Iraqi and American, animal and human, the living and the dead, how can one find reconciliation and peace?