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Interview: Rajiv Joseph on Writing, Communication, and Letters of Suresh

Joseph's new play is running at Second Stage.

For its return to live performance, Second Stage Theatre has opened its off-Broadway season with a timely piece: Rajiv Joseph's Letters Of Suresh, a work about the complicated nature of communication all told through letters from various characters. A companion piece to his earlier play Animals Out of Paper, this lovely new work, which is currently running through October 24, has been Joseph's focus for the last year. Here, via a different form of letter-writing (email), he tells us all about it.

Rajiv Joseph
(© Tricia Baron)

When you were working on Animals Out of Paper, did you always envision a follow-up piece about Suresh? If not, when did this idea come to you?
I didn't initially envision a follow-up. But there was a scene in Animals that took place in Nagasaki, and because of that scene, an uncle of mine sent me a photograph of his uncle (my great-uncle) standing in the ruins of a church in Nagasaki. My great-uncle had been a chaplain in the US Army during World War II and had been part of the military deployment there following the end of the war. That photograph inspired me to continue Suresh's story. I wanted to know what happened to him there. I actually traveled to Nagasaki and found the church from the photograph. That trip amounted to a sort of vision-quest for me. I didn't know what I was looking for, but my experiences in Japan fed the development of this play.

How did you decide to tell the story entirely through letters? Was this a form you worked in before? What kind of challenges did it present?
There was a time in my life when I regularly wrote letters, freehand on paper, and snail-mailed them to friends and family. But I haven't done that in a long time. Letter-writing seems to me like a lost art. It wasn't my intention to write a play solely through letters, but I did have some letters of Suresh in the first draft and they constituted the only part of the play that I found interesting. A friend and mentor, Chris Burney, suggested I pursue the interesting part.

Ramiz Monsef in Letters of Suresh
(© Joan Marcus)

As a theater-maker, what was it like to come back to the stage with a piece that's about communication in all of its beautiful and difficult forms?
I felt blessed to be a part of our collective return to public performance. And I feel that everyone involved in this production brought their own perspectives to the isolation of the play's characters. It's been a joy to put on a play again, even if the so-called "end of the pandemic" isn't an end of anything, but rather a new complicated fold in the way we all live together.

Next year, you've got King James coming to Steppenwolf and the CTG. What can we expect?
It's a two-hander about two guys from Cleveland whose friendship ebbs and flows based on their competing opinions about professional sports, particularly the action and artistry of LeBron James.

How does Letters of Suresh fit in your "canon" of work? What does it have in common with pieces like Animals, Guards at the Taj, or Bengal Tiger, for instance?
I don't know. With every play, I am trying something new. I don't think too much about my plays as a canon or collective body of work. For the last year, my focus has been only Letters of Suresh. When we opened two weeks ago, I turned my attention back to King James.

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