Joe Sykes in a darkly funny production of the award-winning play by Rajiv Joseph
by Jackie Pray
It’s final days. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo opens September 14 at Atlanta’s 7 Stages. For Joe Sykes and the rest of the cast and crew it’s crunch time. They’ve chosen a challenging piece of contemporary theater. Now it’s all coming together.
“This is not an easy play,” Joe says. “It deals with the lasting afterlife of violence. It’s disturbing and heartbreaking and darkly funny. Audiences will be unpacking elements and scenes for days. I’m so impressed that 7 Stages is doing it and I’m so grateful to be part of it.”
During a break in rehearsals, Joe took time out to talk about the play and the work he’s doing to prepare for his portrayal of Tom, an American soldier caught up in a distant war and one of two soldiers guarding a Bengal Tiger in a bombed-out zoo.
“The play is set in Iraq at the outset of the US invasion in 2003. You have carnage and confusion, characters who are ill equipped to handle either, and a wisecracking Tiger on stage—what’s not to love there! I play Tom, an American soldier and one of those characters who’s entirely human and, as a result, badly equipped to manage life in war. He’s not a likeable character; he’s almost an antihero.”
What happens to Tom during the course of the play adds another layer to the rats’ nest of painful and caustically funny ideas that make the play work—six years and two wars after it opened. “The challenge for me as an actor,” Joe says, “is to keep the audience engaged with Tom and fully aware of his humanity.”
How does Joe do that? He starts with something very small.
“Tom. He’s from Michigan. It’s shaped like a mitten. Those are lines from the play. But I’m putting a lot of weight into that. I think he’s an average American. When you visualize the drastic differences in terrain between Iraq and Michigan, you can understand Tom’s experience. For him, it’s like being on another planet where the aliens are shooting at you. It’s nothing like Michigan. It’s exotic and unfamiliar and hostile. Starting from that point, it’s easier to understand how American soldiers could de-humanize people from the Middle East.
“But at the same time, we are humans. We have empathy. For most people, empathy is what gives us our humanity. But a lack of empathy can be fostered through trauma and manipulation. Soldiers like Tom are manipulated by being taught to kill. Essentially, soldiers learn to be inhuman to protect Michigan. This manipulation is a form of trauma. In so many places in this play, writer Rajiv Joseph reminds us that the effects of violence last… and haunt us. Violent acts damage our souls. So Tom is a scar. He is traumatized. During the play we find out that he was at the two-day standoff at the Hussein brothers’ mansion. Tom has killed and he has escaped death. These ideas are unfathomable. But Joseph gives us a path into them. My job—the job of everyone involved in this production—is to lead the audience down that difficult path into some sort of understanding.”
While the wisecracking ghost of a Bengal Tiger, played by Kevin Stillwell, often takes center stage, the layered and painfully honest scenes Joseph has written for Tom amplify the play’s themes of lost humanity, confusion and desolation. Playing them requires a fearless willingness to explore loss and shame.
“Despite his deep feelings, Tom is unable to process his emotions and understand them—to the point where it’s tragically funny. (The play does a great job of making the audience feel uncomfortable with their own laughter.) Tom’s ignorance is comical—heartbreaking and comical.”
Director Michael Haverty is convinced Joe has the chops to pull it off.
“I’ve seen Joe perform in dozens of plays in Atlanta,” Haverty says, “and I’ve never seen him in a role quite like this. The steps he makes every day in rehearsal deepen our understanding of his complex and bottled up character. It’s a joy to work with Joe, and his explosive presence in Bengal Tiger strengthens what we believe is a powerful production. We’re glad Joe has joined us.”
7 Stages is a professional, non-profit theater company devoted to engaging artists and audiences by focusing on the social, political, and spiritual values of contemporary work. It is a global center for the creation of vital conversations through collaborative performance.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Michael Haverty, runs Sept 14—Oct 8 at 7 Stages, Atlanta.
Want more? Joe talks about the play’s themes and making his debut at 7 Stages. View Joe’s interview: