“English” Evaluates the Power Behind a Single Test—at Berkeley Rep
Sanaz Toossi Exposes Clash of Language & Dreams
by Patricia L. Morin
You often hear Americans asking, “Do you know English?” Sanaz Toossi’s unique classroom play “English” spotlights the diverse meanings behind that single phrase.
Near Tehran, in a class preparing Iranian students for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), we see the struggles of four Iranian students. Can they maintain their Iranian identity and cultural heritage while adopting another language?
Passing the test represents a bridge to new stages of their lives, with new problems and promises. We have all taken tests that can turn dreams into reality.
Instructor Marjan (patient Sahar Bibiyan) has returned after nine years in Manchester. Marjan demands that the class speak “English Only.” She stays calm while the students complain about banning Farsi, their home language. They feel like traitors to their culture.
Toossi has them speak fluent English for Farsi—and very broken English as students. The actors speak quickly, and the switch can be confusing.
Obstinate Elham (forceful Mehry Eslaminia), a medical student, must pass the TOEFEL to do research in Australia. She wants to “make less of suffering.” But Elham attacks the class: “The accents make us different. … Makes us stupid.” Because Elham has flunked the test five times, she fiercely embodies the fight against change.
Roya (elegant Sarah Nina Hayon), a doting grandmother who keeps calling her little granddaughter in Canada, struggles with English. The words confuse her. She wants to retain her native Farsi, but her son demands English. Roya accuses Marjan: “You talk about Farsi like it is a stench!” Her desperate desire to join her family conflicts with her love of home and language—a powerful voice for her mother tongue.
For the students, Farsi means staying true to themselves—not to be half and half. As Elham adds, “And not to be conquered.”
Eighteen-year-old Goli (exuberant Christine Mirzayan) steals my heart. Goli innocently loves learning English. She reveals her love in a humorous reading of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Rather than dwelling on losing Farsi, she sees expanding opportunities.
We are confused about Omid (tentative Amir Malaklou), whose excellent English makes the other students suspicious. He and the teacher develop a crush, but he’s an enigma to the end.
Toossi blends the students’ conflicts with the anguish of learning. But discord tears them from their cultures and families.
The actors flourish under Mina Morita’s detailed direction. The talented ensemble depicts leaving a part of yourself behind. Even Marjan reflects on the importance of Farsi, and her mysterious choice to return. Her English worsens as the play continues.
I ponder Elham’s words: “When you speak another language you feel alone all the time. How long can you isolate from yourself?”
This challenging work leaves us questioning our role in the world. So many immigrants are escaping their homelands and having to learn English to survive. What do they think about forced change? How do they feel when they hear: “Do you speak English?”
“English” by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Mina Morita, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Info: BerkeleyRep.org – to Sunday, May 7, 2023.
Cast: Sahar Bibiyan, Mehry Eslaminia, Sarah Nina Hayon, Amir Malaklou, and Christine Mirzayan.
Banner photo: Sahar Bibiyan (Marjan) and Amir Malaklou (Omid). Photos: Alessandra Mello