Staging War: Impact, Aftermath, and The First Devastating Portrait on a DC Stage This Season

“This Place is Crazy With Ghosts…”

As BODY AWARENESS continues with a second Friday matinee performance today at 12 pm, and then two more weekends of performances through September 23, we continue to be buffeted by great new reviews, features, and a great profile coming out this Sunday in The Washington Post on our playwright, Annie Baker, and her directors.

We’re also deeply into our first week of rehearsal for the epic Polish drama, OUR CLASS, by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, the first play ever to win the Nike Award, (Poland’s highest literary prize), earning accolades from London to Toronto. The play presents an unflinching portrayal of one of the largest cover-ups never to make the headlines. As Jan Gross writes in Neighbors—-the source material for Our Class, “One day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half—some 1,600 men, women, and children.” By proving that the Jedwabne massacre was carried out by Polish citizens and not by Nazis (as had been the historical record), Gross shattered the foundational myth of Polish heroism and innocence.

Our Class stages this shocking historical revelation through an intimate portrayal of the lives of ten Polish classmates—five Catholic, five Jewish. As the students grow up, singing and dancing together in the schoolyards, their country is torn apart by invading armies—first Soviet, then German, then Soviet again. Friend betrays friend and violence quickly escalates reaching a crescendo that will forever haunt the survivors.

And the haunting is really what I want to pull out for today’s posting. These Polish classmates are haunted by the ghosts of those who perished in the pogrom (or massacre) of 1941. There are the walking wounded, and then there are the walking dead; the ghosts that continue to interact with the living.

We’ll of course be sharing much more about Our Class, including moments from our first day of rehearsal. But the theme of War and its Impact — the realities of Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they play out in one war after another — are what come to mind this morning, after seeing another terrific play last night with our UM/UC/ND students. Last night we took in BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, Rajiv Joseph’s haunting and highly theatrical new play about the ghosts of war, the brutal impact of combat, and the search for God and meaning in a battlefield torn asunder with dismembered limbs and sand pools of blood.

Here we’ll use the Theater J blog to appreciate other productions around town that speak to the work that we’re deeply involved in already here. This week we’ll look at BENGAL TIGER (and we encourage all to see it)! Next week, it’s BLACK WATCH, and, as you can read here, I’m encouraging lots of folks to see that too. For now, let’s hear some feedback on the Round House show, and some appreciation as well for the conversation that took place after, with the entire cast and the wonderful director of the show, Jeremy Skidmore.

17 thoughts on “Staging War: Impact, Aftermath, and The First Devastating Portrait on a DC Stage This Season

  1. I found the play to be a moving portrayal of a war that has seemed ghostlike for many Americans – a shadowy place of violence far away, which sends back soldiers as ghosts of their former selves. What struck me most about Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was the stark contrast between the very graphic physical violence of the play and the wandering monologues about the spiritual questions the characters have – much less concrete and open for interpretation. The threat of physical violence added a sort of tension and import to the tiger’s monologues about the afterlife, and made his dark humor a welcome yet strained respite from very difficult subject matter. I liked that the playwright opted not to express a particular religious denomination for the characters, instead choosing a more universal form of religion that audience members could connect with.

    Some audience members expressed a sort of discomfort with the strong language of the play, but I think the violence was the most difficult to take in. The horror of the physical violence manifested itself over and over again in the minds of the characters, as the victims come back as ghosts. I found Musa’s memories of his sister Hadia particularly heart-wrenching. The play made excellent use of imagery and staging to bring out her innocence with the bright colors she wore and the constantly recurring image of her absorbing Musa’s creations in the garden. Musa functioned as a representation of the tortured minds of a people immersed in war, constantly tied to working for the wrong people. I would be very interested in seeing the reactions of those who have gone through the war to the play – it definitely does not portray one side as better or worse than the other, but torments both with ghosts.

  2. The line in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” that resonated with me the most was when the gardener Musa asks why he is being terrorized by Uday Hussein, to which Uday responds, “Just because you kill something, doesn’t make it go away.” This line reflects the play as a whole: just because you kill a tiger, yourself, or a sadistic son of a dictator, does not mean that the experience disappears.

    The fact that the characters are somehow haunted by something of their past in the backdrop of the Iraq War emphasizes the notion that you do not have to be on the frontline to be affected by war and the pain and suffering that are attached with that experience. In the opening, Kev is yearning for some action, and is agitated that he must guard a tiger. He later uses Tom’s story of raiding the Hussein mansion as his own. He wants to be in on the action, and when he lives through a traumatic experience, he has trouble dealing with the fact that his experience does not deal with the war directly. Tom is somewhat embarrassed by the fact that he lost his hand to a tiger instead of in the line of duty, lying to the prostitute when she asks how he was injured. Musa was just a gardener, or an artist as he considers himself, until his sister was murdered and he becomes a translator for the soldiers. Even the tiger is caged, guarded, and eventually killed by the marine.

    Even though each one is not necessarily involved directly in the war’s action that many people would consider as the cause of the pain and suffering, they are still profoundly affected by their experiences that continue to haunt them. This play conveys the agony that each one felt by experiencing something painful, and then forced to relive this by being haunted by their past.

  3. One striking element of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” performed by Round House Theatre, was the use of ghosts. The Tiger, Tom, Kev, Uday and Hadia were all ghosts by the end of the play, something I found haunting.

    My fascination with the ghosts, and their critical importance, began when Uday first appeared to Musa. Uday said, “Just because you kill something, doesn’t make it go away.” This line resonated throughout the rest of the show, as each character was haunted by a ghost and each ghost maintained a haunting relationship with another character. This line also helped the play delve deep into the affect of war on soldiers and civilians, utilizing some rather gruesome and violent acts to get this affect across.

    It was interesting that after each character’s death, the character was not shown as being at peace in an afterlife, but rather, the character simply gained knowledge about their previous life. In fact, the Tiger, Tom and Kev all seemed to continue pondering questions about life, such as “What happens now?” I found it almost disturbing that the characters seemed trapped in Iraq, unable to fully understand their own life and their new place in the world (or possibly heaven). It made me really think about the hardships of life after war for our American soldiers.

    Second to the affects of war and the use of ghosts, the gold gun, the catalyst for the several deaths and the resulting ghosts, was arguably the most critical component of this play. This weapon connected the characters and ignited the plot. Kev killed the Tiger with the gun, which was Tom’s prized possession stolen from Uday’s house during a raid. Tom saw the gun as a way to a new life once home, for he planned to sell it for money. Tom was ultimately shot and killed by Musa using this same gun. And Musa, too, was affected more deeply by this weapon, as it was formerly Uday’s, who raped and killed his sister. By the end of the play, it is almost ironic that Musa is utterly lost in his life and left with only the ghost of Musa and this gun.

    I found this play hard to watch at times, but it was its thought-provoking plot and deep message that kept me engaged until the end.

    • I too love the way the gold gun runs through the lives of the different characters, becoming a very clever unifying device, linking the various characters into a overall plot line.

  4. Another production around town now that speaks to work Theater J will be deeply involved in later this season is Studio Theatre’s “Invisible Man,” an adaptation of the Ralph Ellison novel. Don’t be deterred by learning its playing time is nearly 3 hours — that’s not what it feels when when watching: theatrically exciting, this will be superb background for both “Race” and “The Hampton Years.”

  5. Hey “Esther Miriam(!)” – We’ll be seeing THE INVISIBLE MAN on Sept 27 and writing about it here — riffing on themes of race and identity, but also on the Strategies of Adaptation and how this theatrical production essentialized a 608 page novel into three acts.

  6. Throughout the play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, I thought every character was a victim of war. All three characters were haunted by ghosts, making them reminiscing about the past they want to forget. Musa’s painful memory of losing his sister, Hadia, were shown by Uday’s ghost who keeps coming back to stab Musa constantly. It made me think and everyone has a memory they put it away deep down in oneself but eventually it will come back to haunt you, no matter how hard you try to forget. I thought the play was trying to prove a point that true after effect on war are the painful memories the soldiers or civilians would carry on for the rest of their lives.

    The most interesting part of the play for me was the golden gun and the golden toilet seat. The tiger and Tom gets shot by the golden gun and I thought the golden gun portrayed humans’ greed and wealth. After Tom’s hand gets bitten off by the tiger, he still comes back to Iraq to retrieve the golden gun and the golden toilet seat. What was ironic about the play was Tom gets shot by his own golden gun, the reason he came to Iraq, and as he was dying he did not let go of the golden toilet seat. I thought the play wanted to show a point that chasing after wealth (gold) for better life and comfort will often end up in tragedy even death.

    The play in general left me with lots of questions, which made me think as I was coming back home. That’s what it makes the “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” a great play.

  7. The effects of war on people and the environment in which it occurs is one theme that will continue to manifest itself through the productions we visit during the semester. This theme is aptly highlighted in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, but another of the major class themes that I felt was an interesting part of the plot for Musa was the life and struggles of an artist. In his garden, Musa plays the role of creator and is even mistaken for God. I think Musa’s relationship with the garden is an answer to the questions of godlessness that many of the characters verbalize on stage. His admission to the planning of the animals in the garden and the time spent constructing them also invites the audience to contemplate the anarchy and disorder of the demolition of the garden. It serves as a reminder to the viewer that humans are not only creators, they are destructors as well.

    Considering the repugnance of the gore witnessed by the audience, I found this string of allegorical details to be the most redeeming aspect of the play. The topiary garden harkened back to a “garden of good and evil” where the beauty of the animals served as a playground for the innocence of the unseen 10 year old victim girl and more importantly, Hadia. The garden also is the location of the breakdown of the animals’ beauty to the war wreckage and to the disgrace of Hadia’s innocence to Uday’s “snakelike” charm. At first glance, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a shocking illustration of the real destructive capabilities of men, but it isn’t only dark. Some viewers will take away a reassurance of the divinity in every person.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments on the creative/destructive aspects brought up in the play, as well as divinity in every person. I think the fact that the Tiger is such a central character, as one that isn’t even human but yet questions his soul, enriches the symbolism around the question of humanity in war.

  8. I loved seeing Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo because it asked so many critical questions that it never answered, allowing the audience to draw their own unique conclusions and interpretations. Again this was a play where the talent of the playwright really shone through the production because of it’s unique form and the way it strayed away from having a typical linear narrative with a single protagonist to instead having interwoven narratives tied together with the motif of ghosts.

    While there were so many tragedies portrayed in the play, I think the one that resonated with me the most was that of Kev. The fact that he felt the need to go into the translator’s room to get dressed in order to avoid being made fun of really broke my heart. He was so desperate for certain things, whether a close friendship with Tom or action on the battlefield, that he clearly reflected his own crippling insecurity which I think contributed to his mental breakdown and ultimate death. A lot of people during the talkback seemed offended by the portrayal of the Marines and their harsh language. However, I think both of them, but especially Kev, were complex characters that were still humanized and likeable despite their masculine bravado and apparent ignorance. Tom, while certainly less likable, can be seen attempting to redeem himself in his conversations with the ghost of Kev, and how he envies Kev’s afterlife enlightenment.

    • Personally, I am not sure that many people were so offended by the roles of the Marines, as much as they were just upset by the parallels that they can draw with friends and family members that have risked their lives in the war in Iraq. I cannot speak for everyone when I say this, but I know that I even cried at one point during the production because it upset me on a whole different level because I could draw so many commonalities between a family member and one of the Marines. It was difficult for some viewers to watch because of the reality of the situation. I think that it is a huge viewpoint that was over looked during the post-production talks and it was just assumed that some of us were offended by the language, when in my opinion it was quite the contrary.

  9. The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo brought to light many controversial issues that most of society tends to ignore because of the sensitivity of the subject matters. The more interesting issue that arose for me was the question of identity that most of the characters suffered from throughout the production. They found themselves questioning who they really were and what they stood for. A pivotal scene was right at the top of the play after the tiger was just killed and it starts the beginning of an outer-body experience that continues throughout the production. When the tiger actually sees his dead body he questions, “Is that what I really look like? That is how the outside world saw me.” At that moment a chain of thoughts danced through my head. “Oh, that is weird, animals cannot see how the world perceives them. Humans can see through mirrors though. I know what I look like, but wait is that how the rest of the world perceives me?” The production was a very interesting portrayal of the identity crisis that many of us suffer through every day.

    It was also interesting to compare the idea of the identity crisis to the soldiers in the production. Many people say that soldiers have no sense of their own identity. They are one together in the military. I really think that this is true to some extent. The soldiers often lose their own identity when becoming one to combat some of the tragic security issues we have today. Overall, it was a very well acted production and it was very interesting to think through some of the ideas and issues that were addressed.

  10. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

    A strong feeling of discomfort—these were the only words that could accurately describe my emotions after viewing the play “ Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” This was not necessarily a bad feeling, just an uneasy feeling. Simply put, I don’t think I was prepared for the amount of blatant truth that was displayed through such an amazing artistic form; I don’t think anyone can fully prepare for what the play depicted!

    “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” truly illustrated the emotional and mental violence of war. It was impactful and moving to see the mental effects war has on the lives of so many soldiers. This play was filled with ghosts! Watching the play made me realize how much the media has euphemized our entire thinking when it comes to war. The media often feeds the general public with images of happy soldiers coming home to their families waving the American flag. What we rarely see, if at all, are the thousands of dead soldiers, innocent dead bystanders (men/women/children), the long list of soldiers, staff, and even translators who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorders and lives that will never be the same.

    As a Political Science major, another interesting concept I paid close attention to throughout “Bengal at the Baghdad Zoo” was the ideal of the state of nature. Specifically, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s character Musa (the translator) whom wrestled with what some political theorists would deem as the true state of nature. For example, political theorist Thomas Hobbes believed that the true state of nature is a state of war. Hobbes claimed that we all are self interested and anything we do is for the good of ourselves. He explained that people want power and wealth. Hobbes believed that competition, diffidence and glory all leads us to a condition in which we are constantly afraid of other people’s intentions and motives…this is the state of nature. I saw this throughout the play as the character of Musa wrestled with the conflicts of attaining power and wealth coming from a background of a gardener. It was a pivotal moment to see that through manipulation, the most powerful moment of Musa’s entire life was when he killed a soldier. That very feeling of power and glory at that specific moment is dangerous to human growth. Is this an accurate portrayal of what humans would do in a state of war? I certainly believe that it is truthful to say that we have indeed been conditioned to compete in this world.

    Overall, the production was brilliantly written and raised provocative issues that we should all continue to gain more knowledge and understanding of.

  11. In addition to seeing the Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo last Thursday, I also had the opportunity of meeting the entire cast and director, Jeremy Skidmore.

    The play was very intriguing in that it raised more questions than it actually answered. Although afterlife and God were a big theme throughout the play, there were also a lot of questions on the impact of war. In the play, the soldiers, the tiger, and the Iraqi people were all connected by the negative impact that the war had on their lives.

    Although I personally did not find the play offending, I know other students did in particular with the way the soldiers, Tom and Kev, were portrayed. To me, Tom and Kev fit the image of those other soldiers seen on the media. They were big, tough, sexist, and cursed a lot. They also seem to fit the stereotypical American; white dominant and arrogant with no regards for other people’s culture or language. I don’t know if the writer intentionally meant for the soldiers to be portrayed like this, but that’s how they came off to me.

    Overall, the play was very different and thought provoking something that I enjoyed very much as it helped build a connection between the audience and characters.

  12. After seeing the Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, I left the theatre feeling very sad, for the endings of every character in this play, especially the ending of Musa. This show revealed the power of guilt, the cruelty of war, and raised a lot of questions about the effects of the war on both people in Iraq and American soldiers.

    The play is filled with ghosts and regrettable memories. Most of the characters did something they deeply regretted. Kev killed the tiger; Tom didn’t trust Kev, which resulted in Kev’s suicide; Musa introduced his sister to Uday’s garden. All of them tried very hard to forget and escape from these memories, but the memories still came back to haunt them, in the form of ghosts. I actually didn’t think that the ghosts were real, but the deep engraved guilt feelings in their hearts were, and the ghosts were the projections of their guilt.

    The mistrust between people during the war resulted in a lot of conflicts in this play, especially the mistrust between the Americans and the Iraqi people, and the language barrier made the problem worse, even under the condition that a translator was present. When Kev invaded a house of two Iraqi people, asked them not to move but they couldn’t understand, and Kev was almost going to shoot, I felt very upset. I understood the anxiety, fear and anger of both the soldiers and the Iraqi people, but I couldn’t imagine how many innocent lives might be killed under these extreme intense situations.

    The show did an incredible job to bring back the characters’ memories and to change the scenes. The change of the color tones, the motion freeze of the actors that were not in the memories, the switch of the focus of the spotlight, all made it easy for audiences to identify the memory and change their attention. The way that the scenes were changed was very interesting too. The clever arrangements of the iron fences led audiences to new scenes every time.

  13. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo raises numerous questions about commonly held notions of humanity, war, and the division between man & beast both on a physical scale and on a deeper spiritual scale that defies what is meant when referring to a physical being. Through the use of the costuming, or rather lack thereof, for the tiger, there is a genuine sense about the play and about its handling of the sensitive issues surrounding it while anthropomorphizing the tiger and making him seem relatable. It is a real humor, a humor that is macabre. Using the tiger as a central chorus in the play, describing situations and embarking into the realm of philosophy; being at once a central player and the shadow of plot. Through this form the tiger is able to blur the distinction between man and beast in the most obvious and enlightening manner. As opposed to the representation of Uday Hussein and the young marine Kev who both exhibit a animalistic nature seldom seen in the tiger, even to a point where, in Kev’s most vulnerable state, he seems like a cowering animal. In the case of Uday though, it seems as though through his cruelty and malice that he is not necessarily a beast per se, but he seems as far from having any degree of humanity as the audience can see it. In a not-so-subtle way the playwright is asking the audience questions of their own existence and giving very little advice about how to go about answering these larger questions. I mean if a tiger cannot find purpose for his own existence, what hope do I have as a “higher animal”?

  14. Uneasiness accompanied me out of the theater following the performance of the Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. I generally feel something like this after encountering portrayals of war, and I wondered at the boldness and affective dissonance cultivated by playwright Rajiv Joseph.

    Joseph very successfully demonstrates the ambiguity of war, and the individual’s role within it. There were many definite victims but no clear protagonists. Only Uday Hussein seemed to be the ultimate and unquestionable villain, and even this was set as a foil to his often-humorous eccentricity. In this sense I believe the play was rather successful in bringing out the confusion of war, and the confusion of principles, values, sense of self and even understanding of god and creation, that happens within war.

    In an interview with Center Theater Group, Joseph recalled how a professor asked “What American playwright will write about Iraqis” from their perspective? He decided to take up this challenge, in order to help understand and think about the war at a deeper level. I found myself wondering about the ethics of writing this way. From my experience of the play, Joseph was gracious-this was not a heroic story of American exceptionalism by any account. I wonder how an Iraqi citizen might feel after watching this play, what they might say about it.

    Overall, I was left with the sense that the point of this performance was to have precisely the effect I described originally. The unexpected mixture of death and laughter, destruction and existential wondering helped break through this viewers homeostatic state of mind. The confusion of despair and humor made it possible to identify with all of the characters enough to ask what I would do in such confused and horrific situations. This play raises many questions and issues that it never attempts to resolve or answer. This play leaves the audience member questioning, reflective and thoughtfully aware. As Joseph said in the afore mentioned interview, “If we believe in Democracy, we are complicit in this act of going to war. And in being complicit in it, it’s a responsibility to pay attention to it and think about it”. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo has done this, and with stunning style.

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