Theater criticism: “English” — Language course

By David Greenham

English makes us think about what it looks like on the other side of our mother tongue; from the outside looking inside.

English by Sanaz Toossi. Directed by Melory Mirashrafi. Stage design by Janie E. Howland. Costume design by Nina Vartanian. Lighting design by Amanda E. Fallon. Sound design by Ash. Dramaturgy and cultural advice by Vahdat Yeganeh. Dialect coaching and cultural advice in design by Donya Pooli Yeganeh. Produced by Speakeasy Stage and performed at the Boston Center for the Arts, through November 19.

The company of English. From left to right: Deniz Khateri, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Lily Gilan James, Zaven Ovian and Leyla Modirzadeh. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

Are you a non-English speaker looking to get into a Boston area college? You will probably need to pass the TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language. Many local schools require it.

In the new play by Sanaz Toossi English, making its Boston-area premiere at the Speakeasy Stage, TOEFL takes center stage. Instructor Marjan (Deniz Khateri) teaches a TOEFL preparation class to students in Karaj, Iran, a large city just west of Tehran. Karaj has been in the news lately as it is one of the sites of the current women’s rights protests. English takes place in 2008, a year before the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which sparked protests as well as arrests of opponents of the regime. As playwright Vahdat Yeganeh points out in his program notes, many people at this time were taking English lessons in hopes of leaving the country. In 2008, the number of Iranian immigrants was at its highest level since the 1979 revolution.

Learning to speak English is hard, but worth it. On the first day of class, Marjan tells Goli (Lily Gilan James) and the other three students “I think this is one of the greatest things two people can do together.”

Goli, an enthusiastic 18-year-old, loves English. “Before I speak Farsi well, I know I want to speak English,” she says in her stilted, hesitant tone, adding, “English doesn’t want to be poetry like Farsi. It’s like rice. English is rice. You take rice and do what you want with it.

Elham (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) doesn’t feel the same way. She was accepted to Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to study gastroenterology, provided she passed the TOEFL. “Every day here I feel stupid”, she complains, “I’m not stupid and also I’m nice”. “English is not your enemy”, Marjan reassures her, “English cannot be conquered. Kiss him. You can also be anything you are in Farsi in English. I have always liked myself better in English.

Deniz Khateri in the SpeakEasy production of English. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

These exchanges reflect the stakes and the personalities that the playwright Sanaz Toossi explores in her sometimes subtle, sometimes laborious drama. Through a series of 23 vignettes – all set in the tiny, stylized classroom designed by Janie E. Howland – snippets of history emerge. Much of the conflict is about the virtues and flaws of assimilation. Generations of immigrants have fought to retain their culture.

Roya (Leyla Modirzadeh) is motivated to learn English for her granddaughter, Claire. Claire’s father, Nader, and his wife live in “Canada”. Nader assimilated and anglicized his name to Nate. He insisted that Roya learn English before meeting his granddaughter. Elham protests, passionately, that Nate should beg Roya to teach Claire Farsi, to learn more about her heritage.

Omid (Zaven Ovian) speaks almost perfect English. As the students play a game by speaking English words while throwing a ball around the room, Omid taps into an impressive array of vocabulary. As they list the clothes, the class brings up the basics: shirt, pants, shoe, sock, etc. Omid suddenly comes out with ‘windbreaker.’ Moments later, as they shout out found objects in a classroom, he offers “white.”

The teacher, Marjan, learned American English in a similar class in Iran before spending nine years in Manchester, England. Marjan proudly remembers once giving instructions to a woman on a bus in England. Marjan’s accent was not in question. “She just thought I belonged there,” she recalls, still elated.

English makes us think about what it looks like on the other side of our mother tongue; from the outside looking inside. In the best moment of the play, Marjan explains that when you speak another language “you feel so strong all the time. As if all the worst parts of your voice were filtered through a microphone. Your head hurts and the days seem longer. You go years without making anyone laugh. She adds: “No one has the faintest idea that you were the first in your class. Or that you are adventurous or optimistic or that you are kind. Really nice. You start to forget that you are adventurous, optimistic and kind. She concludes “How long can you live isolated from yourself?”

Deniz Khateri (seated) and Lily Gilan James in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

The cast of five is compelling, but they still have to tap into the depth of the material. Too often, brief scenes seem superficial. Director Melory Mirashrafi pushes these abrupt episodes forward while Amanda E. Fallon’s expressive lights and Ash’s punchy music successfully maintain the story’s energy at every brief transition. Nina Vartanian’s costumes and Janie E. Howland’s period sets, plus Emme Shaw’s props (including a working VCR), are all lovely, but the demands of maintaining the dramatic pace limit any sense that the time passes during the six- week course.

Yet for all its drawbacks, Toossi’s piece offers a perspective that many of us don’t consider deeply enough. But we should. This outside perspective is all around us. It is not uncommon for immigrants to speak several languages. Walk around Boston, Cambridge, or just about any city in the United States, and you’ll likely hear multiple languages. At Fenway High School in Boston, a short walk from the Boston Center for the Arts, more than 50% of students come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken. Instead of embracing and celebrating our differences, they are often used to separate us. English is a valuable effort to enlighten humanity of these differences.

David Greenham is Adjunct Lecturer in Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta and Executive Director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for over 30 years.