The Gift of Sanaz Toosi’s ‘English’

What goes into learning a foreign language for your livelihood? How does one prepare to become a foreigner in an unfamiliar country? Encapsulating the migrant experience through the microcosm of a TOEFL class in 2008 Karaj, Iran, Sanaz Toosi’s searingly beautiful play English, directed by Knud Adams, answers all of this and much more, running at The Atlantic Theater in New York City to critical acclaim.

The characters are Iranian and speak Farsi, and have their cultural specificities, but their experiences are universal for any immigrant community in the west. Toosi’s words and the actors’ mesmerizing performances convey the persistent anxieties and shame that have American and other western societies have persistently thrust on Iranian communities looking to simply make a life elsewhere. The belittling for not speaking a different language perfectly, for having an accent to be ridiculed, and to have the constant label of “foreigner,” and an Iranian or Muslim one at that, take a toll on anyone. English emphasizes that maybe it’s these new countries that should change to accommodate, rather than forcefully assimilate migrants to downplay their culture and languages.

Toosi’s play is a gift for those of us of Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) descent, and of course specifically for those of Iranian descent. Racism and demonization against Iranians remain at a constant high in the West, as war-mongering politicians salivate at the prospect of deteriorating diplomacy and renewed conflict with the Iranian government and the further suffering of its innocent people. But English is a stunning humanization of Iranian people that we still rarely see in Western media, conveying the universality of their experiences by its tightly focused specificity.

At its core, English is about how humans are able to relate to one another and how they will struggle to establish new homes in new places. It’s about how they will always carry their home with them, making for especially poignant moments during the play. From Elham’s (Tala Ashe) anxieties about taking the exam, Goli’s (Ava Lalezarzadeh) fascination with learning the new language, to Omid’s (Hadi Tabbal) struggles at finding his place, to grandmother Roya’s (Pooya Mohseni) aching to be with her family in Canada, and Marjan’s (Marjan Neshat) struggles to fulfill each of her student’s needs, audiences will easily relate to all of English’s characters’ and their emotional journeys.

The story resonates for the children of migrants who have observed, or perhaps not thought enough about, the struggles of their parents to make a new home for their families while doing their best to retain their culture for themselves and their children. In that, English opens those emotional gateways for migrant families to understand each other better, and perhaps provides an avenue for healing from any lingering wounds originating in that misunderstanding. Ultimately, it’s about honoring the struggles and sacrifices that our families made to move out of their home countries to make better lives for their children. It’s not hard to imagine that the Iranian American members of the cast performed with this exact intention of honoring their parents and what they did for them.

I’ve never seen an Iranian American, or even any other SWANA, production like this in the United States. Although I am not Iranian, but Kurdish, English mesmerized me with the beautiful poignancy of its storytelling and had me reflect on the struggles and emotional turmoils of my own family members and parents who had made the journey here and to the United Kingdom from Kurdistan. I could see my aunties, my cousins, my parents, and myself and my sibling and cousins in this cast of characters, with so many of those overlapping anxieties, insecurities, joys, and discrepancies of being of a migrant family. English makes me want to improve my Kurdish even more now, strengthening ties with my roots, and makes me want to learn Farsi as well. As the play shows, it’s never too late to take up a language in either direction of the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

English is a gift. While it has a limited run at The Atlantic Theater, it deserves longer runs country-wide and internationally. And we need far more Iranian stories in theater, film, TV, books, and all other western media, along with SWANA stories writ large. The production I attended this past weekend had a standing ovation. Sanaz Toosi’s words and their powerful performers deserve many more.