In theatrical terms, it was the antithesis of Broadway. No Robin Williams, no manicured sets, and no elaborate costumes. Yet the raw emotion of the staged reading of Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by nine NYU Abu Dhabi students demonstrated just why the play was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The reading was the culmination of a four-day visit by Joseph to NYUAD, where he worked with theater students and held a discussion, a playwriting session, an open rehearsal, and then a performed reading. The visit was also a testament to Joseph's relationship with the University. In addition to earning an MFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Joseph also worked with a number of NYU New York theater students during a reading of the play in New York City over the summer.
In the lead-up to Joseph's visit, a number of copies of the play circulated around the University; however, as a staged reading, the troubling, evocative, and at times comical images of war Joseph elicits truly came to life.
The play opens in the Baghdad Zoo, where two American soldiers are guarding the enclosure of a tiger who outspokenly laments his situation. His groaning is interspersed with the soldier's agitated conversation. The disconnect between these two spheres of action was played to great affect by NYUAD sophomores Brook Fowler, Oscar Lozano, and Nikolai Kozak.
I think everyone recognized the unique opportunity of being granted such immediate access, especially as undergraduates, to such a luminary.
Hasan Nabulsi (NYUAD Class of 2015) was formidable as Musa, a gardener turned translator, whose prized topiary garden draws most of the characters to offer their own versions of its metaphorical or literal significance. In order to convey the tiger's intermittent changes in outlook, Joseph arranged for four students to take on the role of the tiger. As such, Valentina Vela, NYUAD Class of 2015, also gave an impassioned performance as the tiger who, in death, is troubled by great, exponential questions that no one else seems to much entertain. Amani Alsaied, NYUAD Class of 2014, was extremely versatile in playing a number of roles, moving easily between Arabic and English with the script. And Krushika Uday Patankar and Kee Ryung Kim (both NYUAD Class of 2015) also successfully switched into the role of the tiger, while Gabriel Burgazzi, NYUAD Class of 2015, read as Uday Hussein, executing the role hauntingly well.
"I was thrilled to be part of the reading in Abu Dhabi," Nabulsi said. "I think that the play is extremely interesting and well written. It deals with existential questions, the themes of life, death, and the presence of God. It is also very interesting politically; it sheds light on the mess that a war creates." He was also honored to play the role of Musa. "Importantly, Rajiv humanized Musa and reflected his inner struggle with a tone that I was easily able to relate to," Nabulsi explained. "There was a struggle in Musa's world that extends beyond the realm of the war into his own memories and personal suffering. I really enjoyed the play and it was inspirational to work with Rajiv who is a very intelligent and humble person."
NYUAD Theater Program Project Manager Gaar Adams was delighted with the reading. "It was wonderful to see so many different types of students — some who had read the play, others who had seen it performed, and still others who were encountering it for the first time — come together," he said. "I think everyone recognized the unique opportunity of being granted such immediate access, especially as undergraduates, to such a luminary."
While Joseph's visit was fleeting, his presence on campus provided inspiration for students. What's more, the performance marked the first time the play had been staged in the region; however, with copies of the script continuing to circulate around the University, it was certainly not the last.