“English” is Head of the Class
PITTSFIELD, MA – A friend of mine was demonstrating the four different tones in the Chinese language where pronunciation is necessary for producing specific words. I’ve never been able to carry a tune and wondered how being tone deaf might affect my ability to speak Chinese.
I took two years of Spanish in high school but I would not be able to order breakfast. There are many advantages and opportunities open to those who can speak foreign languages but as Americans, we don’t need to learn a foreign language. We can travel the world and be pretty certain that we can get by with English.
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, English, by Sanaz Toossi (who is also appearing in the Barrington Stage Company drama) takes place in an Iranian classroom in Karaj in 2008 where the students are preparing for the TOEFL exam. That’s the “Test of English as a Foreign Language” for all of us who have never had to take this test before. Things may have been more hopeful in 2008 for those who would consider learning English.
Toossi does something remarkable with this play, bringing us into the classroom and imparting the feeling of learning a new language with all the awkwardness, humility and perseverance required. The play’s four students stumble and grope through the task of speaking English – a requirement of all those taking the class is to speak it 100% of the time. With the terrific set by Afsoon Pajoufar and the fluorescent lighting by Masha Tsimring, we can easily enter the school experience.
The teacher is Marjan (cool and compassionate Nazanin Nour) who will give the students hash marks on a whiteboard if they slip and speak Farsi; five marks and they are expelled from the room. The students are Roya (a regal Pooya Mohseni), the teenage Goli (delightful Narges Kalogli), a suspiciously advanced young man, Omid (winning Babak Tafti) and the truculent and troubled Elham (played by the playwright in a very exciting appearance for the audience).
We watch the students struggle with vocabulary and idioms as they speak haltingly and here the playwright does something brilliant. When the characters break down and speak Farsi (earning their hash marks) they speak quick and fluent English as opposed to their broken speech when the Iranians are attempting to speak English. It immediately communicates the character’s eloquence in their native language and enlists your empathy effortlessly. It is a magical device that allows us to experience this foreign world and situation intimately. When English is described as not as poetic as Farsi, we know exactly what they’re talking about, and we haven’t heard a word of Farsi the whole show.
The director is Knud Adams who also directed the World Premiere that was an Atlantic Theatre Company and Roundabout co-production in the Spring of 2022. It’s as much of a coup as having Toossi herself in the cast. We are getting an off-Broadway production of one of the most important plays with its original creators in Pittsfield. It is quite the achievement to close out Alan Paul’s inaugural season as Artistic Director.
English runs at Barrington Stage through 10/15. For tickets, visit www.barringtonstageco.org