English by Sanaz Toossi
Pulitzer Prize Winning Play at Barrington Stage
By: Charles Giuliano - Oct 03, 2023
By Sanaz Toossi
Directed by Knud Adams
Set, Afsoon Pajoufar; Costumes, Dina El-Aziz: Lighting, Masha Tsimring; Sound, Kenny Neal.
Cast: Nazanin Nour (Marjan), Narges Kalogi (Goli), Sanaz Toossi (Elham), Pooya Mohseni (Roya), Babak Tafti (Omid)
Barrington Stage Company
October 27-October 15
The play, English, by Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi, was selected by freshman artistic director, Alan Paul, well before it won the Pulitzer Prize in May. Because the original actress was unavailable she has stepped in to portray Elham. Thereby, the Barrington Stage production, directed by Knud Adams, is a double triumph. The play is complex, topical and timely while her acting proves to be utterly charming.
The play transpires in a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) class in the Iranian city of Karaj, near Tehran, in 2008. The class for advanced students is conducted by the tall, poised and elegant Nazanin Nour (Marjan). She learned impeccable English during nine years in Manchester, England, where she was known as Mary. Why she returned to Iran is one of a number of conundrums which complicate the play.
The set design by Afsoon Pajoufar is horizontal and represents a generic classroom. Behind which is a glass wall viewing a courtyard then another structure. This makes for several possible entrances and shifting views of the class. Intervals of instruction are demarked by lighting options (Dina El-Aziz) including harsh fluorescents when class is in session. For no apparent reason there are audience members flanking but not interacting with the drama. There is another design non sequitur when, late in the play, there is rain in the courtyard as class members arrive with umbrellas.
A paraphrase for the drama might be The Importance of Learning English. From an Iranian perspective it underscores challenges for immigrants in America. We are unique as an English only nation. It has long been a mandate while some minorities retain their languages and cultures. Native American children were sent to boarding schools where they were Americanized and beaten if they spoke their tribal languages. It was as bad if not worse for First Nations children in Canada.
There is pressure to speak English without an accent that evokes a “where are you from or where were you born” question. What blurts out in this play is one student taunting another with “Borat” which is the ultimate ridicule. Reacting to Marjan as “Mary” there is a common refrain of “Why can’t they learn my name?” Another adds “Only mothers should give us names.” It is rare that strangers can spell or pronounce my surname. People often refer to my German born wife, Astrid, as Ingrid. After decades as an American they continue to ask where she is from.
Kudos to Toossi to present this play about aspiring Iranian immigrants to often elderly, set in their ways, American audiences. Whether this equates to compelling drama is another matter as the unwinding was episodic, with transitional lulls, and obfuscations.
The range of enthusiasm and skill in mastering a language are personified by five quite different characters, motivations and abilities. Each allows another vector to explore nuances and the commonality of the ultimate goal of earning a Green Card in America. That proved to be not entirely consistent as Elham needs to pass TOEFL, which she has flunked several times, to matriculate to medical school in Australia. Pooya Mohseni (Roya) needs to learn English as a demand of her son and family in Canada. More on that later. It seems that Babak Tafti (Omid), the most fluent speaker, opts to stay in Iran. The actor is currently in Billions and formerly Succession.
Initially, the women students wear head scarves. Late in the play, when the course is about finished, they do not. Why that occurs is not clear. There is the challenge of differentiating when Farsi is spoken for which there are demerits in the English only class. The playwright has used a device of having Farsi spoken quickly and fluidly in English while student attempts at English are slower, flawed and accented.
Marjan runs a tight ship and the class is mostly serious and focused. Humor comes from the playful and resistant Narges Kalogi (Goli). She gets well earned and much needed laughs. Just 18 she is playful and enjoys learning English.
There is the point that compared to Farsi there is none of its poetic lyricism in blunt and pragmatic English. Inherently, Elham needs but doesn’t like English. Marjan rightly states that one must embrace and think in a language in order to learn and understand it. In Manchester, for example, it took her two years to grasp the transit system.
The class sessions are lively particularly when there are “pepper” exercises entailing vocabulary. A subject like “kitchen” or “clothing” is designated. A bean bag is tossed evoking a quick response. If not one is eliminated. Omid generally wins and eventually we learn why. In a “clothing” contest he blurts out ‘windbreaker’ which Marjan declares is an obscure but legitimate word.
An accomplishment of the play is that we come to care deeply for the characters even in their functions as signifiers. There is an aloof austerity to Roya who holds back from the banter of the younger students. During breaks she makes heart wrenching calls to her son who never answers. We are shocked when she blurts out colors or numbers as proof of her growing command. As immigrants her son is intent on Canadian assimilation and will not allow cooing to a grandchild in Farsi. She drops out of the class. Her absence is noted but never explained.
How I wish that my father had cooed to me in Italian. My niece, Sarah, however is fluent in Russian. It’s an American tragedy, now exacerbated, as colleges are dropping language requirements, and cutting back on Humanities for more tech and science.
As the only male in the class there is sensual tension between Omid and Marjan. She is married but during “office hours” when they are alone the attraction is palpable. It comes to a head when he announces being engaged. We won’t spoil the reveal.
Let’s part with the thought that unless you are Native American we all are immigrants. Some of us more recently than others.
E Pluribus Unum.