It is easy to take for granted the privilege of learning English at a young age and the different types of opportunities that can come with the language. The play “English,” currently at Studio Theatre, is the story of four adult students studying English in Karaj, Iran to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The four students and the teacher are discovering how English can be more than a language and can lead to the removal of their Iranian identity and the feeling of being an outsider when speaking a language that is aligned with the idea of success. Sanaz Toossi’s play under the direction of Knud Adams combines the importance of identity, belonging, and expression with the fear and joy of learning English to depict the complexity of being bilingual.
…the production of “English” at Studio Theatre is an incredible display of how language and identity are connected and is highly recommended.
Toossi’s play is a playful and reflective piece that is set in the spring of 2009 during a political change in Iran when Mir Hossein Mousavi is running for president. While the country is changing, the characters are deciding what type of future they want for themselves and how English can be beneficial or detrimental to their goals. The characters’ age may vary but they all are questioning their intelligence and personality in English when they know who they are in their native language of Farsi. The compelling display of the internal battles by the actors is memorable and thought-provoking as their characters learn to express themselves.
When it comes to the actors’ performances, each artist is talented and deserves praise. The protagonist is the student Elham, played by Tara Grammy, whose character is not afraid to speak her mind, question the world around her, and is striving to make her dreams come true in her pursuit to attend medical school in Australia. Grammy plays a character that is competitive, anxious, and exhausted but still determined to pass the test which is holding her back from attending medical school. Grammy takes on this role with energy and fierceness to tell Elham’s story.
The teacher, Marjan, is played by Nazanin Nour whose character is a returning immigrant to the city of Karaj after being in Manchester for nearly a decade. Marjan is struggling to understand her intertwining identity between English and Farsi. Marjan believes that the best way for students to learn English is if they are fully immersed in the language by not speaking Farsi in the classroom. She is met with resistance from her students as she forbids them to express themselves freely and comfortably in Farsi. Nour’s performance is believable as she reminds the audience that the opinion of oneself is the only one that matters. Goli, the youngest student, is portrayed by Narges Kalogli. Her motive behind learning English is to have options for the future although she is uncertain of her next course of action in life. Kalogli captures the emotions and uncertainty that a young adult would face.
Omid, played by Mabound Ebrahimzadeh, struggles with the idea of being an outsider between two countries. Ebrahimzadeh’s charming Omid is preparing for his green card interview and is a favorite student of Marjan because of his lack of a Farsi accent. Roya, played by Nina Ameri, is learning English in preparation to meet her Canadian granddaughter who does not speak Farsi. Ameri’s character is a maternal guide who teaches the class about the power of a name and the importance of memory.
The directorial choices by Knud Adams are smart and engaging for the audience. The play is predominately in English but gives the impression that the characters are speaking Farsi. The actors manipulate the rhythm of their words as if they are switching between the two languages. Their execution of this technique is flawless and beautiful, as well as being easy for the audience to understand which language is being spoken. The rhythm also insinuates how learning a new language can be both fun and frustrating for students. The characters’ mistakes and approaches to learning through repetitive vocal exercises and playing games are playful and entertaining. Overall, the production of “English” at Studio Theatre is an incredible display of how language and identity are connected and is highly recommended.
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Strong Language.
“English” runs through February 26, 2023 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Tickets are available online. Masks are required.