PBS ‘Playwright: From Page to Stage’ Remembers a ‘Tiger’ at the Taper

Over a decade ago, in 2003, a man was mauled by a male Bengal tiger. The incident sparked public outrage and was developed into a play. In the PBS program, “Playwright: From Page to Stage,” we follow the two plays, including the tale of the tiger, as they make their way to the stage and eventually to New York.

If you’re a regular at the Mark Taper Forum, then you’ll remember the tale about a tiger, “Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo.”  Playwright Rajiv Joseph uses the tiger, played by Kevin Tighe, to explore the absurdities of war, racism, prejudice in greed. The production was first presented in Culver City at the Kirk Douglas Theatre under the direction of Moisés Kaufman.

The other play is part of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy.  McCraney’s trilogy was set in Louisiana and deals with family and Yoruba stories and traditions. “The Brothers Size” was at the Public Theatre in New York, but while “Playwright: From Page to Stage” gives us a sense of the racial issues of the company, we don’t get as a sense of the full trilogy. And McCraney’s piece keeps its original ensemble and doesn’t get a star to help draw theatergoers in New York.

The Cleveland-born Rajiv Joseph  is half Asian Indian and part French and German. A graduate of Miami University with a BA in Creative Writing, he earned a Master’s at NYU. His script caught the attention of the Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie who brought Joseph to Southern California for a production at the Kirk Douglas before it was produced at the Mark Taper Forum. The development process was based in Southern California but that’s not the only Southern California connection.

Although neither the play nor the documentary tells us much about the actual event, there was a real man, a soldier, who was attacked by a tiger. The man, Keith Mitchell, graduated from Poway High School. If you’re unfamiliar with San Diego County, Poway is 23 miles north of San Diego and 13.5 miles south of Escondido.

For Los Angelenos, that’s 115 miles (two hours by car) south of Los Angeles. Poway is inland.

Mitchell died in 2007 from his injuries that resulted from the mauling. He was only 36. Contrary to the Pomerado News report, the tigers had not escaped from the zoo.

Mitchell had joined the Army right out of high school. He served 14 years. Mitchell came late to a morale boosting party held for the Army in the Baghdad Zoo. According to The Agonist, Mitchell wasn’t drunk and he wasn’t feeding the tiger. He was, in the Army report, between the tigers’ cage and the outer fences, on a walkway where he shouldn’t have been. Mitchell told a different story, but there’s no doubt that the tiger had Mitchell’s arm in its mouth. Another soldier shot the tiger. The tiger died of internal injuries.

Mitchell’s arm was broken above the elbow, the tendons and arteries were severed. His bicpes were damaged and he lost a finger. After over 20 operations, he could not raise arm or make a fist.

Mitchell left a wife, Angelique, behind and children.

This is something to keep in mind when you view “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo” and you might squirm a bit. That awkwardness is revisited when Tighe is replaced by a star, Robin Williams. Tighe had been the star of a series, NBC’s “Emergency!” but that was decades ago (1972-1977) and his role as the father of John Locke on ABC’s “Lost” didn’t give him the wattage of Williams.

The program is worth watching as we hear from the playwrights, the actors, the directors and the producers as they discuss the process of getting a play on stage, polished and then ready for New York.

The Independent Lens program  “Playwright: From Page to Stage” airs tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. (Check local listings).

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