‘English’ a Seminal Play by Sanaz Toossi
Born into our parents’ culture and country, we learn how to communicate with them easily and take our language for granted without thinking about it. Delving deeper, language defines us, defines our thoughts, our ways. Our name in our native language has meaning from its history. It describes who we are and how we perceive ourselves. Many change their names as a result, knowing the change means a different self. Considering the import of the language we speak and our identification with it, how does learning a new language impact the way we understand ourselves? How might learning another language effect our being?
English, the insightful and powerful work by Sanaz Toossi, presents these questions and answers them poignantly through the voices of five individuals from Iran, who grapple with learning English. Starring an all-Iranian cast, the play enjoyed an extended run at The Atlantic Theater Company and most probably will be a favorite to be staged globally. Directed by Knud Adams, the play remains an original that unfortunately, couldn’t have had a longer run.
The setting is Karaj, Iran in 2008 before and during a confluence of events taking place between Iran, the United States and other English speaking countries. At the time immigration is fairly easy and Iranians on the move want to study abroad, do business and travel for extended stays to English-speaking countries to which their families emigrated.
Marjan (Marjan Neshat portrays the instructor), teaches for the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The standardized, timed test measures the English language ability of non-native speakers, who wish to study in English-speaking universities. The test is accepted by more than 11,000 universities and other institutions in over 190 countries. The selective test guarantees that the students have an excellent working knowledge of the language to insure their success, not only in their classes, but also in navigating the culture and society.
As Neshat’s Marjan teaches, she realizes as we do that in every class there is a dynamic. Personalities emerge. Though she attempts to be objective, she finds herself aligning with students who demonstrate like-minded abilities and cognition. As her students reveal themselves in their response to her and the language, we find their observations humorous, their interactions fascinating. And the conflict arises when the struggling and often embarrassed students relate her to the onerous time they have with learning a completely different mode and thought process of communication. Neshat is authentic in her portrayal as Marjan, revealing the inner emotional struggle she has especially with Elham (the feisty, assertive Tala Ashe).
Humor evolves organically from the students’ perceptions, struggles and slippage into their native tongue Farsi in the first weeks of the class. An excellent teacher, Marjan attempts to gradually curb their fear and angst holding their feet to the fire by speaking English. Her skills are effective. We watch these individuals speak halting English. When they rip off sentences quickly (in English), that designates they speak Farsi.
At the outset Neshat’s Marjan reveals equanimity despite the competitive confrontations of Elham (the excellent Tala Ashe), the shy, halting behavior of Goli (the sweet Ava Lalezarzadeh), and the lackluster, removed Roya (the heartfelt Pooya Mohseni). Eventually, it becomes apparent that Omid (the attractive, confident Hadi Tabbal), the only male in the class, whose English is nearly unaccented and spot-on, is the one that Marjan connects with cognitively and perhaps, as Elham suggests, on a more personal level. Neshat and Tabbal effect an intriguing bond that flows with undercurrents between their characters.
We enjoy Marjan’s activities with the class which reinforce recognition of English nouns through games that emphasize speed. She keeps in mind the TOEFL is a timed test. However, eventually, the language begins to wear down the teacher and the students after Neshat’s Marjan encourages them to undertake the most difficult part of learning a language; they must only speak in English.
Thus, they must converse in sentences, and in effect begin to approach thinking as a native English speaker. All of them chafe at this and break into Farsi which Neshat’s Marjan “censures” by noting it on the chalkboard. The only one who doesn’t find this difficult is Tabbal’s Omid.
As Marjan attempts to have each of the students integrate themselves more personally with English, the conflicts explode. We discover Mohseni’s Roya only wants to learn because her son wants his mother to speak to her Canadian granddaughter in her native tongue which is not Farsi. This devastates Roya, who in a show and tell explains the two languages as she hears their differences. When she discusses her son’s email in Farsi and a voice mail he leaves in English, she uplifts the beauty of Farsi. She emphasizes the softness of her son’s intent in Farsi. Then she notes in his English voice mail, his speech. The sounds he makes are harsh, removed, cold. She asks the class, “Who is mom? I am Maman.” There, in one word the history of Persia is eradicated. The audience was completely silent during Mohseni’s plaintive discussion of loss; her son and granddaughter disappearing her culture before her eyes. This powerful moment is beautifully rendered by Mohseni and insightfully directed by Knud Adams.
The distinction Toossi suggests is profound and thought-provoking. Roya’s relationship to her son has been separated by the nature of the language and we see her heart is broken because of it. As he lives in Canada over the years, the separation will become impossible. The geographical difference matters little. It is his adoption of this new way of being in English. Even if she stays with him in Canada, she will be forced to learn this harsh, cold speech and ways of thinking to attempt to form a relationship with her granddaughter. But a culture, a way of being, a way of life and history has been disintegrated in the next generation. Mohseni’s Roya defines this as a death. As a result of her incredible performance, we believe and buy into Roya’s grief. Her granddaughter will never know the softness and poetic beauty of Farsi, the language of poets, of Omar Khayyam.
When Marjan has all of her students speak their English names, Roya rebels. It is her last stand. She never returns to class. We anticipate that the cost is too great for her to be reborn into a culture that reshapes her identity with an ugly name and being. As Roya leaves the class, Marjan’s response is invisible, absent. When a student asks what happened to Roya, Marjan dismisses the question. We are left to think that Roya failed to even desire to evolve, and Marjan failed Roya. Marjan, normally empathetic, moves on to “save” the others. However, Neshat’s Marjan too swiftly dismisses Roya. The undercurrent of her own feelings screams out with her silent dismissal, as harsh as the sounds of English to Roya’s intellect.
Toossi makes an important choice for our understanding of the complicated Marjan who puzzles us. Why didn’t she use Roya’s difficulty as a teachable moment? Why didn’t she encourage the others or explore for a few minutes a path to enhance their connection with her? We don’t know if she deeply empathizes and understands Roya’s rebellion or if she is annoyed she failed her. The question Toosi raises about Marjan’s character, she never answers because it is a developing characterization steeped in a confluence of emotions and feelings. Clearly Neshat’s Marjan is thrown by this event. Her becoming an English teacher has impacted her. There is gain, and there is loss and there is the price she pays for the trade-off.
Pooya Mohseni’s portrait of Roya is eloquently delivered, touching and emotionally driven. In every line we feel Roya’s pain in having to deal with this untenable situation. Mohseni knocks it out of the ballpark. Through her character most of all, we understand what it means to be a native speaker. We empathize with the loss of dignity, honor and person-hood Roya feels being forced into speaking English my Neshat’s Marjan. We get how her inability to communicate and make herself understood in the beauty of Farsi is anathema. Of course, she feels English is like putting on a cloak of stupidity, ugliness, ungainliness. If her granddaughter never learns Farsi (something Omid suggests her son should have his daughter do), she will never know who her grandmother really is. Roya’s loss, historical, cultural, personal is beyond calculation.
Toossi’s strongest moments present themes of loss of the old identity, yet the incomplete adoption in fluid grace with a new one. For each of the characters, we empathize that it is like being birthed again, torn from one’s natural lush habitat and plopped down in a desert left to die of thirst every moment, as they yearn to feel the cool balm of speaking in one’s mother tongue. English shines when the pronounced conflicts increase.
For example, Elham’s ambitious nature and brilliance force her to try to be the best in the class to achieve a high grade on the TOEFL in her pursuit to be a doctor. Ashe nails Elham’s frustration in achieving a high score on the MCAT and fearing a low score on the TOEFL. The TOEFL is a mountainous hurdle, so she hates English and by extension is oppressed by Neshat’s Marjan. Nevertheless, her competitive nature compels Elham to provoke Marjan in the stress and strain of being challenged. Speaking Farsi, yearning to be close, she manipulatively accuses Marjan of disliking her.
Ashe’s exceptional portrayal is revealed in her character’s suppressed anger. Thus, Elham proclaims to Ava Lalezarzadeh’s Goli that Marjan “loves” Omid. The sweet, shy Goli avers. But Elham insisits that because Marjan invites Omid to watch English films with her there is a “bond.” Indeed, in their moments together the Tabbal’s attractive Omid is suggestive and in his scenes with Neshat’s Marjan there is a connection. However, it is not as Ashe suggests; it is based in understanding English fluidly. Indeed, Marjan invites Elham and Goli, but they don’t want to spend the time with Marjan and Omid watching films like Room With a View. These conflicts are vital to the play’s forward movement. Perhaps they might have been established earlier.
Toossi’s uses her characterizations to organically develop her themes. These strengthen our engagement and pull at our empathetic heart strings. Thus, when Omid’s mystery is revealed or when Elham comes back to discuss how she performed on the TOEFL, we identify. Most of all Toossi has accomplished a milestone by indicating the importance for native speakers to stand in the shoes of immigrants who are even attempting to learn English. To learn a different language is a courageous, heroic feat, as Toossi suggests. It is a willingness to expand to another identity, another thought process. Ultimately, the nature of the language, its formation and structure changes the individual emotionally, mentally, indeed psychologically. This must not be underestimated. All of the actors’ portrayals vitally heighten Toossi’s themes and bring us closer to the importance of empathy. Ashe’s development of her character Elham is exceptional and we thrill for Elham as she shocks us with her success which was in her all along.
Toossi also reveals why there are those who don’t wish to learn English, even though they’ve lived in an English speaking country for years. These individuals remain in their own communities, never learn the language and never venture out to immerse themselves in new experiences. The risk of embarrassment is too great. They will not live in humiliation as their new persona, feel like an idiot and be quiet and uncommunicative, not understanding the too rapid speech bursts around them.
Finally, Toossi implies that by leaving behind the old self and adopting a new one, the individual wipes out the favored history of their beloved country, identity, relationships, being. Of course, if there is no direct imperative for business or education, they will not even try. Additionally, in the United States, their accent will be so thick it will be tantamount to a “war crime,” especially in the rural South and West as Ashe’s Elham ironically and humorously suggests.
This is one of the great lines in Toossi’s superb play. Understandably, non-native speakers do not wish to brave the looks of disgust, horror and puzzlement on the faces of native English speakers when they try to ask, “When will the waiting room open?” (Ws without an accent are particularly hard for non-native English speakers). Toossi covers a great deal of ground in her touching play which ends on a high note. We finally hear the actors speak in Farsi.
The production has ended. A few points about when I saw it the last day of its extended run.
Some of the actors couldn’t be heard, even by those sitting in the second row. Friends sitting there told me they barely heard certain thin-voiced actors. Also, sitting up close they became annoyed because the chairs blocked their view at times and they had to lean to the left or right. I was in row F and I thought it was just me when I missed some of the dialogue. I wasn’t the only one.
Problematic was the set construction, a lovely box set classroom which kept in the sound and echoed it. A wonderful idea for the set shouldn’t obstruct the audience’s enjoyment of the production with occluded sight lines and muffled sound. The idea of the classroom, revolving on a turntable platform is symbolic. But unless the audience hears each line of the actors and sees all areas of the stage without obstruction, the symbolism is impaired. This is too wonderful a work for it not to be technically spot-on.
Look for the marvelous Toossi’s work. She is a treasure and English is a vibrant, important and current play that begs to be performed again.