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Playwrights on Writing: Rajiv Joseph

April 10, 2010 | 11:00 am


Three years ago I was sitting in a room in New York with some actors, a director, and a young Iraqi woman named Wassan who was going over an early draft of my play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and helping the actors with the Arabic that is peppered throughout the script. Wassan went through the lines I had written out in English and translated them, and then helped the actors with the pronunciations and the phonetic spellings so they could go home and practice speaking in a different language. Wassan, a curator of Islamic art and architecture at the Brooklyn Museum, was volunteering her time and work to help me. She was born in Iraq, and I was moved and honored that she felt the play merited her attention.

The experience of working with Wassan, and with the other translators who have since helped me with the play, has been uniquely interesting to me, as the act of translation is at the core of “Bengal Tiger.” One of the central characters in the play is an Iraqi man working as a translator for the U.S. military, and there are several scenes in the play in which a person stands between two others and tries — sometimes in vain — to allow for communication and understanding. No subtitles are used during those scenes because it’s important to me that the audience sense the confusion and frustration of being unable to communicate while a situation becomes dire.

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. The play (which opens April 25 at the Mark Taper Forum) engages with all these things, and so I’m basically guessing my way through the territory, hoping it all coheres.

To read the full essay by Rajiv Joseph in the Arts & Books section, click here.

Photo: Kevin Tighe as the Tiger and Glenn Davis as Tom in last year's production of the play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Credit: Craig Schwartz / Center Theater Group