When the World premiere of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was produced at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009, an exciting artistic partnership between Center Theatre Group and Rajiv Joseph was born. Not only was it Joseph’s first large-scale production at a major regional theatre, but the following year, the show was trasnferred to the Mark Taper Forum and ultimately went to Broadway in 2011 and starred actor Robin Williams. The play was named a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama and was also awarded a grant for Outstanding New American Play by the National Endowment for the Arts. Center Theatre Group then commissioned Archduke, another World premiere play from Joseph that played the Taper in 2017, and has recently co-commissioned his King James with Steppenwolf Theatre Company for an upcoming Taper World premiere production.
The idea for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo formed when an article about the killing of a Bengal tiger at the zoo in Baghdad came to Joseph’s attention. During the April 2003 invasion of Iraq, the zoo was destroyed and turned into a battlefield, leaving hundreds of animals roaming about the grounds, trapped in cages, and stolen for food and profit—only 35 of the 650 animals remained. Four lions that escaped were killed by US soldiers. The zoo was partially restored by conservationist Lawrence Anthony and even opened to the public that summer, but in September, US soldiers held a party on the zoo's grounds. According to the zoo's manager, a soldier allegedly attempted to feed a tiger and had his right arm mauled, leading another soldier to shoot and kill the tiger. After an Army investigation, it was revealed that the soldier who was injured had been drinking, and the soldier that killed the tiger had used an illegal weapon he had taken from an Iraqi.
The play draws direct inspiration from the news story. At the top of the play, a tiger that lives at the Baghdad zoo explains to the audience that many of the animals that once lived at the zoo have fled due to the invasion, only to be shot by soldiers. Later that day, Kev, a United States soldier, shoots and kills the tiger. The play follows Kev, who is haunted by the ghost of the tiger that wanders the streets of the ravaged city “seeking the meaning of life” and witnesses the destruction of the world by its very inhabitants. The show also features several other characters whose lives have been directly impacted by the US’s intervention, both American and Iraqi, and is even written in two languages: English and Arabic. Through Joseph’s abstract storytelling, described as “boldly imagined, harrowing, and surprisingly funny” by The New York Times, he explores cycles of violence, how it affects the human psyche, and how it can continue even in the afterlife.