English is about more than a language class

Photo by Liz Lauren

There is an old joke that goes like this: What do we call people who speak more than two languages? Multi-lingual. What do we call people who speak two languages? Bilingual. What do we call people who only speak one language? Americans.

We don’t always reflect upon it here in the US, but there are over 3.3 billion people worldwide who speak more than one language. Anyone who has ever traveled abroad recognizes this…and knows that there is actually some truth to that joke: Americans have the highest percentage in the world of people studying second languages, but the majority of that linguistic skill is never nurtured and dies on the vine. Still, maybe we can’t be blamed: when your language is the most spoken in the world and also the number one second language, there is less incentive to learn a new tongue. Still, we do it: there are 500 million members on the language-learning app Duolingo, nearly 60 million in the US alone. (I’m currently using it to learn three languages.)

Sanaz Toossi’s Pulitzer Prize-winning English, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, follows a small classroom in Karaj, Iran where students are being prepped for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Their teacher, Marjan (Roxanna Hope Radja) has lived nine years in England and believes strongly in immersion: she has a “No Farsi” rule in the classroom.

The students, who vary widely in their proficiency (or lack thereof) in English, are played by Sahar Bibiyan, Nikki Massoud, Pej Vahdat, and Shadee Vossoughi, all of whom have their own reasons to be here, though we learn more about some than others. Bibiyan’s Roya wants to move to America, but her son has told her that she will only be able to stay with his family if she has passed the test. (He wants her speaking English to his child.) The poignancy of her desperate desire to reconnect with him and to get to know her grandchild is emotionally wrought, especially when we begin to understand that he is, in fact, ghosting her. Massoud’s Elham, an outspoken and blunt young woman, wants to go to med school in Australia, but she’s on her fifth retake of the test and is starting to think she’ll never pass it. This especially frustrates Elham, who has always been a good student and in fact has already passed the MCAT. Vahdat’s Omid, the only male in the room, clearly wants to make connections but he is harboring secrets. And Vossoughi’s Goli, the youngest of these students, wants to become fluent in English to better navigate the (mostly) English-language entertainment she immerses in.

Marjan herself, who has definite notions about how to run her course, is, it appears, less sure of how to run her life. She may have returned to Iran, but it is clear that she misses England. She is lonely, so much so that she opens the door to a relationship with Omid. (Watching Vahdat and Radja tiptoe around their mutual attraction is both adorable and great fun.) Interestingly, the closest relationship that Marjan does build is with Elham, who has been from the outset both frustrated and frustrating in the class.

Toossi’s play is about more than the individual characters’ journeys, though. She makes the point several times that language is the way we present ourselves to the world, and therefore native speakers (who can fluently present their full selves) are always going to have it easier than those whose speech is broken up by the twin scourges of accent and vocabulary. There are those who can so immerse themselves that they can lose their accents and develop instant recall of a wide range of words…but most of us will end up struggling. (Goodness knows I find that to be true on Duolingo.) Here, language itself becomes almost a full character, and we are reminded that we become different people—more or less confident, more or less ourselves, etc.—depending on what language we are speaking.

One fascinating trick that Toossi uses here is the way that she separates spoken Farsi from spoken and fractured English. The latter, difficult and halting, means that a character is trying to work with the structures of English (which of course is they only path to real learning). The former means that they have taken the easy way out and defaulted to the language that flows more smoothly from their tongues.

Director Hamid Dehghani, whose deft hand is clear throughout the play, has done a remarkable job of developing each character, working with pacing (especially, I’m sure, with the parts in broken English), and keeping everything clear to the audience. His lighting designer, Jason Lynch, and his sound designer, Mikaal Sulaiman are completely in sync as they show us time passing, and his set designer, Courtney O’Neill, does not allow herself to be cowed by the fact that the entire play takes place in a classroom. While one could imagine the blocking becoming repetitive, it never does (thanks in part to O’Neill’s decision to have more desks in sight than she needs, allowing for varying classroom configurations).

English is a rich play with unusual and well-developed characters doing whatever it takes to get them where they want to be. Every aspect of it works beautifully, from Shahrzad Mazaheri’s costumes to O’Neill’s notion of showing us a little bit of Karaj peeking over the classroom, grounding us in a specific place far better than could ever be achieved by a plain classroom setting. It is a powerfully directed, brilliantly performed (and also timely) piece that needs to be seen.

English is now playing at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, until June 22. Performance times vary; check the website at goodmantheatre.org. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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