A&E Review

Review: English, a play of language and identity

By: Sofia Lo Piano

Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 was the last night to see “English,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Sanaz Toossi, at The Old Globe in San Diego. Performed in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, it was the first time this play has been staged in a small, round theater, said director Arya Shahi in an interview with Sonia Desai for Performances Magazine.

“Can the audience feel like they are going to class with our characters?” Shahi said.

The answer is a resounding yes. 

Set in Karaj, outside of Tehran, in 2008 during a time of political unrest in Iran, four adult students and their teacher wrestle with more than English language skills in their Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) classroom. 

Marjan, an English teacher and anglophile, opens the first scene by placing an “English Only” sign on her desk, a rule that is symbolic of her grasp on the nine years she’s spent in Manchester. She is unwilling to let go of who she became as a result of her time there.

While the majority of the play is in English, the distinction between Farsi and English is made in the speed and accent of the words. The fast-paced English, with the instinctive flow of a mother tongue, indicated when the characters slipped into speaking Farsi; the slower, choppier intonations infused with an Iranian accent indicated when characters spoke actual English. 

Although connected by the common goal of learning to speak English, each student has different reasons for showing up to class. As they find new ways to express themselves, they are faced with the realization of what they are leaving behind in the process of speaking a new language. 

Roya is a grandmother who wants to move to Canada to be with her son and granddaughter, but is told she can only visit when she learns enough English — Farsi is not welcomed in her son’s Canadian home. 

Goli, energetic and 18 years old, is looking for more opportunities for her future, while Omid has had these opportunities and is looking for the parts of himself that he left behind when his family returned to Iran from America. 

Elham, an aspiring gastroenterologist with exceptional MCAT scores, has failed the TOEFL exam five times. She needs to pass to attend medical school in Australia. Although not alone in her frustration and anger, she is the most expressive about it, feeling as though her accent is a “war crime.”

As Marjan encourages and challenges her students, she learns that while their English is improving, hers is fading. She attempts to stave off this loss by shunning Farsi in the classroom and reminiscing about her blissful time in England where she went by Mary. Said in Farsi out of spite, Elham reacts to Marjan’s idolization: “Your mother names you, not foreigners.”

Written as a comedy even though it is sad, “English” is meant to show that “Pain looks different than how we think it looks and also joy is always there. Kindness is always there. There’s so much laughter through it,” said Toossi in an interview with Alexis Soloski originally in The New York Times on Feb. 17, 2022.

The humor comes in small moments, like when Goli sings along to Ricky Martin and hits all the high notes, when Marjan admits that Hugh Grant is difficult to understand or when English curse words are accidentally discovered and emphatically spoken.

Humor is in the hot potato-like vocabulary contest they play. The way Elham is annoyed that Omid “got any of that” recorded conversation, and Roya’s endless voicemails to her son, one time listing off how she knew all her numbers: “Forty-three. Five hundred and thirty-eight. And seven.” 

However, in the final moments “The pain is so real that I don’t think anybody’s laughing,” said Toossi.

She is right.

By the end, it was clear on the faces in the crowd sitting across from each other in the circular theater that the struggles with identity and belonging were just as real for some of them as it was for these characters. 

Two of those faces belong to an English professor and an Italian professor, teachers I see three days a week as I expand my language skills. It felt like we were in class.

In no way can a native English speaker understand what it is like to learn English as a foreign language, but this play is an access point to see into that process; a process fraught with frustration, feelings of futility and frantic fury; a process that is not only learning another language but the English language, one carrying so much complexity in its use.

It has been withheld, used for judgment and marked as some kind of gold standard — with a stamp of superiority — all because England once had an empire on which the sun never set. Maybe that is why Marjan loved Manchester. Maybe that is why Elham shouted, “I am superior!” when she finally passed the TOEFL, earning a 99 out of 120. 

Maybe that is why they spoke to each other in Farsi — actual Farsi — in the final scene, without a translation. Because that is who they are, and no one, not even another language, can take that away.