AMERICAN JOURNEY M10
Arthur J Pais discusses
heritage, Robin Williams
and Baghdad Zoo with
Rajiv Joseph’s plays always draw very good artists. Having actor Robin Williams perform in his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo has made it an event in New York.
Joseph these days divides his time between the rehearsals
of his plays, Bengal Tiger in New York and The North Pool
in Menlo Park in California. He has asked to be off his
classes at New York University for a time.
You have said: ‘Travel takes you out of your comfort zone.
It made me think about America and America’s place in the
world in a new way.’ How has your long stay in Senegal and
other travels shaped your sensibilities as a playwright?
When I was in fifth grade, I went to India for the first
time. It was a big family trip, and it required me to miss
several weeks of school. My teacher at school decided that,
instead of having to make up all that school work, that my
general assignment in that time would be to keep a detailed
journal of my travels and hand that in as my project.
That assignment, in retrospect, was my first step down
the path of being a writer. It taught me that the big, significant experiences of one’s life should be recorded. I think I
realized at that early age that the act of keeping a journal
held two purposes. The first was recording your life so you
could remember these moments at a later time. But perhaps more importantly, the act of writing about my day
helped me understand it better. The practice of keeping a
journal is something that has lasted the rest of my life.
Incidentally, my mother recently reminded me that my
teacher gave me a B for that journal. The critics are everywhere.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo started when you read
a short news item from Baghdad. How did the 200 word
news item become a 20,000 word play?
The story about the zoo was the pinprick—the initial
inspiration — for the first scene of the play.
But there were many other inspirations as well. The stories of New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson, writing from
Baghdad, were hugely important for me, as well as the daily
reporting of The New York Times, as well as the documentary film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control by Errol Morris.
The fact is, I drew from a variety of very different sources to
create this play, and it came together very slowly.
How would you describe Bengal Tiger Some people
believe it is essentially a political play. Some think it is a
moral story… What are the more important themes of the
I have always considered it a ghost story. But I think it is
ultimately about the convergence of the political and the
primal. The political forces of the world have great control
over people (and animals) and sometimes drag them far
from where they were supposed to be. The primal forces of
the world, are those instincts and hankerings deep within a
person (or animal’s) soul. And these also can drag us into
dangerous waters. This play pulls both those forces into the
same moment in time.
You said recently: ‘Being mixed race has always been a
part of my identity. You are never fully one thing or the
‘My worldview is one of mixed race’ ‘My worldview is one of mixed race’
other. You always feel a little apart, a little bit of an outsider, even when you are with your own family. That’s an
interesting perspective for looking at the world.’ Would you
talk a little more about this, and how this perspective has
helped you as a writer?
It is difficult to say how this has helped me as a writer, but
all I can say is that I enjoy making my plays multi-cultural.
My worldview is one of mixed race, and so my plays reflect
that. At the very least, it gives me great satisfaction to give
Southeastern Asian and Middle Eastern actors good roles
to play upon the stage.
I am asking you the question I have asked many writers
and actors ranging from Robin Williams to Paul Theroux.
What is your biggest fear as a writer? And how do you
There are rare moments in the writing process, when
some small detail from years ago in my life flickers to life
and gives what I’m writing a particular shine. I feel that the
act of writing opens up these conduits to the past and to my
subconscious. And when the connection comes through
clearly, it’s like hearing a voice from a different dimension,
and it’s thrilling, if even for a brief moment.
‘The play itself is an act of translation, in
that I have never been to Iraq, I have never
fought in a war and, obviously, I have
never been dead or a ghost or a tiger or
wandered through limbo,’ he said. ‘The
play engages with all these things, and so
I’m basically guessing my way through the
territory, hoping it all coheres.’
His Senegal years, his visits to India, and
growing up in a mixed neighborhood have
sharpened his sensibilities.