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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Sanaz Toossi Celebrates Pulitzer Win as Validation of Iranian Narratives

Sanaz Toossi’s phone rang about noon on a Monday as she was leaving the San Francisco airport’s security checkpoint. Her agent called to inform the 31-year-old author that her first staged play, “English,” had won the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Toossi, the graduate student at New York University who wrote the play for his thesis, couldn’t believe it. ‘Are you sure?’ I questioned. And when she said yes, I asked her to “please double-check.”

The award was genuine, and when Toossi returned to Los Angeles by aircraft, her phone started to ring with congratulations from people all across the United States and even from Iran, where her parents were from and where the play is set.

In “English,” which was just voted the best new American play by the Off Broadway Obie Awards, we follow a group of people in Karaj, Iran (Toossi’s mother’s hometown) as they study for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The Pulitzer committee termed it “a quietly powerful play,” noting that the characters’ “family separations and constraints on travel drive them to acquire a new language that may alter how they view themselves and also represent a new life.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the play was supposed to premiere at the Roundabout Underground in 2020, but instead it made its world premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York City last year, with Roundabout serving as a co-producer. Productions of it have already taken place in Boston, Washington, Toronto, Montreal, and Berkeley, California, with more scheduled for Atlanta, western Massachusetts, Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

Toossi grew up in Orange County, California, visiting Iran often and speaking Farsi with her family at home while using English in public. She discussed “English” and its Pulitzer Prize victory in a phone interview on Tuesday. These are paraphrased and modified portions of our talk.

I suppose I composed this play to vent my frustration with the rampant anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States at the time and now. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the United States for allowing my parents to come here in search of a better life for themselves and for me. They busted their tails to make something beautiful where there was nothing, and it hurt to hear them and me dismissed as outsiders for our efforts.

The book explores the relationship between language and individuality, as well as the anguish of being misunderstood.

I’m not confident in my ability to communicate in either English or Farsi; I just feel like I have a passing knowledge of both languages, and I usually seem to mess up during job interviews because I can’t seem to get the words out the way I want them to. I believe this play was a lesson to be kind with myself, as much as it was about my parents and immigrants and the hope that we can offer grace to those who are attempting to express themselves in a language they did not grow up speaking.

Having an audience see your performance is a mild kind of torture. I have nothing to do except observe them while they take in the performance. When we performed this in New York, I recall feeling like we were sometimes getting the wrong types of laughs. But what has truly touched me is the reaction of non-Iranian audiences who have seen the play and recognised themselves in it. It’s lovely that you’re asking that of your audience.

When I was a kid, I would become so furious at the media because of the parts they would give people like me. Knowing so many brilliant local actors and feeling that they weren’t given a chance to shine was upsetting. I hoped to collaborate with them and cast them in parts they would like. My goal in writing this play was to make the audience and our performers laugh as much as possible.

I have no idea whether that worry will ever go away. I’m so happy that I’m Iranian and that I get to share these tales; now I just have to keep my fingers crossed that the next commission I turn in won’t be about Iran, but will still be just as interesting!

I have decided to go on strike. Just last week, I was a picket on the queue. I am really honoured to have earned membership in the W.G.A. Theatrical performance is my first and foremost passion, but unfortunately it does not pay the bills. If I could, I’d devote every ounce of my being to the stage. But thanks to the W.G.A., I was able to pay my rent and keep my health insurance via Covid. I, too, will spend this week and as long as it takes on the picket line. For many of us, playwrights, that’s how we pay the bills.

I’ve had to question the significance of our work this year. The Iranian people are now participating in a revolution spearheaded by women at the risk of their own lives. I sometimes think about what kind of person I would be if we hadn’t fled, and whether or not I would risk my life by letting my roosari (a traditional Indian head covering) slip back. The theatre has had a profound impact on my life, and it has helped me picture a brighter future when I was unable to do it myself. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope that this shows Iranians that our voices are being heard in this year of so much suffering and violence. And I really hope that we’ll be able to bring this production to Iran shortly.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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