Playwright Rajiv Joseph is no stranger to works that tackle volatile, large-scale issues. In late 2007, New York’s Alter Ego Productions presented his play The Leopard and the Fox, an adaptation of an unproduced BBC screenplay about the 1977 political overthrow and subsequent execution of Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. “Tariq Ali wrote [the screenplay] for the BBC, but it was then censored because of its political stance,” says Joseph. “I took that story and partly contextualized it with current-day politics in Pakistan, which just seemed like the interesting thing to do. None of us had any idea how incredibly current this would become.”
The production opened on October 17th; the very next day, Bhutto’s daughter Benazir (herself a former prime minister and character in Joseph’s play) returned to Pakistan from exile. Two months later, she was assassinated. “Our play closed before her assassination,” continues Joseph, “but working with that cast of actors, and developing this new play while actual [real life] characters in the play were, in a way, continuing the very story we were telling, remains the most profound experience I’ve had as a playwright.”
Now, just under a year later, Joseph returns to the New York stage with Animals Out of Paper, which begins performances at Second Stage Theatre’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre on July 14th. So how does a playwright follow up a timely, profound, politically-relevant theatrical event? For Joseph, the answer was clear: origami.
“I came into the subject in a strange way, since I don’t fold origami at all,” he explains. “I had always been interested in writing a play about a young prodigy. I’ve always liked chess, but chess-prodigy stories have been done. One night I was sitting on a Greyhound bus next to a woman who was folding origami and we started talking. She told me she teaches children origami, and she noted that every once in a while, a kid will understand how to fold in a way that most other people cannot. She said these kids ‘see folds before they happen’, which I thought was fascinating, and which led me to the creation of this play.”
This impulse to explore the nature of being a prodigy translated itself into Suresh (sur-RAYSH), a 17-year-old high school student with a knack for calculus, a love for hip-hop, and an entirely unexpected gift for origami. In the following excerpt, Suresh’s teacher Andy Froling (affectionately known to Suresh as “Fro Dog”) recounts his initial impressions of Suresh to Ilana Andrews, the professional origami artist whom Froling hopes will take Suresh under her wing.
We have a “Calculus Club.” It’s like an after-school extra-curricular activity for anyone who’s into Calc.
He joined it his freshman year. Suresh is his name. His folks came from India. He was born here, though. He shows up in Calculus Club, this little runt of a kid, he looks like a 7th grader, and he’s the hit of the Club. Even though he’s this little guy, the only freshman, he’s really confident. A little comedian is what he was. He was a lot cooler than anyone in that room. The Calc Club became a different place. It wasn’t just about Calculus, it was about winding Suresh up and watching him run his mouth.
After a family tragedy, Andy continues to explain, Suresh goes from the gregarious life of the classroom to an uninterested nonentity. Ever the caring teacher, Andy stumbles across a novel solution.
Anyhow, he’s in my advanced Calc class. And just sleeping through it. He’s way ahead of everyone in there. Sometimes, when nobody understands how to do something, he lopes up to the front of the room and casually teaches the class for an hour. His father, really strict guy, he made Suresh take advanced mathematics courses at the local community college during summer breaks. This kid knows way more than me. He’s a genius. So I think to myself: I love this kid. I feel bad for him. Why should he sleep through class every day? Why waste that mind of his? So I gave him a book of basic folds. Origami’s great for teaching math they say, etcetera.
Andy looks in the box and pulls out an origami toad.
Look at this. Look at this frog. He did this after about two weeks of folding in his whole life.
He did this? After two weeks?
Two weeks. Most people start by folding a boat or a flower. He folds an Amazonian toad.
Joseph’s own origami experience began in earnest with a trip to Origami USA’s National Origami Convention in June 2007: “I met so many origamists there, and everyone was eager to talk and share stories. It was there I met Robert Lang, one of the most famous origami artists in the world.” Lang was also a participant in the Bug Wars of the 1990s, a sea change moment in which origami practitioners would engage in what Ilana refers to in the play as “a semi-friendly international competition to see who could fold the best bugs.” These “wars” would prove of vital importance to the field, as increasingly complex folds became the norm and crease patterns (the basic blueprint for these complicated pieces) began to be printed and widely disseminated.
It wasn’t only the masters of the field who shared their stories with Joseph. “I also spoke to some children attending the convention—some of those kids who see folds before they happen. And I met the documentary filmmaker Vanessa Gould who was working on her soon-to-be-released film Between the Folds, a documentary about origami. Vanessa, [like Joseph, a Park Slope native], was incredibly helpful to me, and has read the drafts of my play and acted as an origami advisor.” The kismet of this connection was not lost on the playwright. “It was a uniquely exciting situation to meet another person who was working on a creative project ABOUT origami at the same time as myself. Especially since we’ve both gone through some of the same challenges and frustrations that come with the strange decision to make a film or play about origami.”
One of those challenges, one would imagine, is finding ways to activate and generate conflict from the solitary process of folding paper. Joseph meets this challenge, perhaps not surprisingly, by focusing on the characters’ connections to the art form, as well as the interpersonal relationships formed by and around the craft. Andy, for example, counts the origami training he has received in the past from Ilana among his blessings—quite literally. (It is blessing number 5,962 in the notebook where he records such things).
Suresh, on the other hand, finds parallels between origami and his other favorite art form.
When Fro Dog gave me those books, I cruised through the animals and shit real fast. It was the complex polyhedra that threw me for the loop. So I’m sitting there, trying to wrap my brain around that shit, and I got my iPod on, you know? And I’m listening to this MC freestyling, laying down these dope rhymes and there was something about his rhymes and his voice that just sort of spoke to my paper, to my hands. So I always think that folding is just like freestyling.
Yeah, improvising your rhymes. Or your folds.
Like, say you want to fold a simple cube. Boring. Okay, but here’s where you start, a simple fold, a simple rhyme.
As the scene proceeds, Suresh freestyles, first simply, then building to what he calls a “stellated truncated icosahedron”—complex multisyllabic rhymes with complicated internal rhyme schemes. Upon finishing his rhyme, Suresh declares:
Now if that were a crease pattern, it’d be all the fuck over the place. You don’t see it?
Don’t you know how sometimes you gotta think about something by not thinking about it?
It is in this moment that Joseph perhaps best sums up the nature of the prodigy: an inability to express or teach what one can do instinctively and impeccably. While the playwright himself would unquestionably deny any direct connection between himself and his precocious origami rock star (“The need to tell a very interesting and compelling story makes certain then that my plays are not in the least bit autobiographical”), his own response to a question about his philosophy on writing makes the comparison clear: “I’m not sure that I have an overall philosophy, or if I do, it’s probably better not to prod at it very consciously.” In other words, Rajiv Joseph knows exactly what it means to think about his work by not thinking about it.
Rajiv Joseph was recently awarded the Paula Vogel Award by the Vineyard Theatre. His play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, will be produced by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre during the 2008-09 season. Hi play Animals Out of Paper runs July 14 to August 17 at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on Broadway at 76th Street. For tickets and information, visit www.2st.com
Kristoffer Diaz is a playwright whose most recent work, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, tackles another uniquely American marriage of sports and entertainment: professional wrestling.