Berkeley Rep’s production of Sanaz Toossi’s English There is humor in the learning difficulties and struggles of learning a language, as well as the struggle to identify and belong with one’s care.
EnglishBerkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St. through May 7
In 2008, I was in Iran’s classroom. This is the contemplative comedy four students — Elham (Mahry Eslaminia), an outspoken young woman who wants to go to medical school, Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon), a grandmother who is learning English because she wants to live with her adult son in Canada, Goli (Christine Mirzayan), a bubbly 18-year-old excited to learn, and Omid (Amir Malaklou), a young man whose English skills clearly exceed those of his classmates — as they prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, required for international students who hope to enroll in a college in a primarily English-speaking country.
Marjan (Sahar Bibyan), their instructor, is kind and patient. She has just one non-negotiable rule: This is an “English Only” classroom.
“In this room we are not Iranian,” Marjan says. Halfway through, she’s fed up with the repeated offenders. “We feel our lungs in English. Can we agree on that?”
Marjan creates tensions by keeping a running tally on her whiteboard of all the Farsi-speaking students. Reach five, and you’re kicked out of class for the day. Her favoritism for one student only adds fuel to the fire.
The script is clear and the pacing is excellent. While there’s plenty of comic relief sprinkled throughout (including an amusing jab at Julia Roberts’ teeth), that’s not where English shines brightest.
Roya, the grandmother, delivers the evening’s most powerful moment as the backdrop behind her deepens in hue.
She stands in the hallway, looking at the classroom from the outside in as she leaves a voicemail for her son Nader, who now goes by the name Nate in “The Canada” with his white wife and daughter. He hasn’t been picking up her calls; he tells her he’s up to his ears in work.
“Nate is sound dog make,” Roya tells her son in her accented English, hurt seeping from each line. “I hope you not forget, Nate is not your name.”
The play premiered in English Only In February 2022, it was performed at the Linda Gross Theater in New York. It won the Obie Award for best new American play in February 2023. A co-production of the Atlantic and Roundabout theater companies, it featured a fancy set — a rotating stage meant to literally shift the audience’s perspective. Berkeley Rep’s version works well without it.
English It is not subtle in how it uses themes of alienation and assimilation. It was not surprising that Toossi wrote the play to fulfill her MFA in dramatic composition at New York University.
With each short scene, more is revealed about each character’s hopes and dreams and their reasons for taking the class. We feel the yearning for someone who is not loved by their blood. The frustration of not being capable of expressing your thoughts in an unfamiliar language.
We sympathize with Elham, the hopeful medical student, as she imagines how easy her life might be if the tables had been turned long ago — if Persia had taken over the world and Farsi was the language used universally, and not English. She is right to be angry. The TOEFL includes a speaking section. This portion penalizes accents and docks points. She points out that this does not include accents from France or Britain. These accents are what people love. She’s failed the exam five times.
We look up to our teachers as children. We look up to our teachers as more than just people with lives outside of the classroom. They are unchanging, authoritative figures who can answer all our questions. In English Marjan, the instructor is not exempted from change, we discover.
The students begin to lose their accents over the course of word games and listening exercises, as well as show-and-tells. But we find that Marjan’s English, once white-sounding enough to fool native speakers, is starting to deteriorate, and that maybe that deep anxiety is why she so desperately wants to reject anything Farsi.
“The Farsi is winning,” Marjan admits to the class, but mostly to herself. “I guess I belong here.”
English runs 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through May 7. Masks are required. Tickets are $43-$19 and subject to change. Online Or call us at 510-647-29949
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