Sanaz Toossi
Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi Credit: Haruka Sakaguchi

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English, Sanaz Toossi’s first professionally produced play, hadn’t even opened at Studio Theatre when the show’s run was extended for an additional two weeks. Ticket demand has been that high. “Incredible” is the word the theater used when announcing the additional shows. And it’s no wonder. The play, about four Iranian adults preparing to take a standardized test used in English-speaking countries to measure non-native speakers’ English language ability, earned a New York Times critic’s pick when it premiered in 2022. It’s been described as “rich,” “contemplative,” and “comic”; its playwright is a fast-rising star and Iranian women continue to make international headlines as they protest for women’s rights.

Toossi, an Iranian American writer from Orange County, California, wrote English in 2017 in response to the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban, as well as “years of xenophobic rhetoric leading up to” the ban, she notes in Studio’s press release. The play, which runs an hour and 40 minutes, is funny while offering layers of insight into the emigration process, and simultaneously paying homage to Iranian people. 

“So many people refuse to understand what it takes to emigrate to this country. And giving up your mother tongue is a part of that,” Toossi says in the press release. “That can be an immensely painful experience for so many people, and I wanted to capture that, but I also wanted to honor how funny, textured, and sometimes contradictory Iranians (and all of us) can be.”

A lot has happened in both countries since the play was written in 2017 and even since its 2022 premiere. Most noteworthy are the current monthslong, women-led protests happening in Iran, ignited by the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of Iran’s morality police. According to various outlets, Amini was arrested and beaten for “improperly” wearing her hijab. In December, Forbes wrote that Amini’s death “started as an outcry against the regime’s treatment of women [and] evolved into a revolutionary movement calling for regime change, recognized throughout the world.” 

But despite English’s extension, Toossi doesn’t know what impact, if any, Iran’s current events will have on its upcoming audiences and if the protests have the ability to alter the play’s reception. “I’m not sure what that will mean for us,” she tells City Paper via email. “I assume whatever Googling the audience would have done after the play, they’ve now done before. Or maybe not.” Studying is not a pre-viewing requirement, but, Toossi adds, “I can only hope that audience members leave with a renewed sense of support for the Iranian people.”

A rising writer for various outlets, Toossi is currently under commission with multiple theaters across the country. She’s also been a writer on numerous TV series, including Abbi Jacobson’s award-winning A League of Their Own and AMC’s Invitation to a Bonfire, and has more projects in the works. With her growing relevance in U.S. pop culture, Toossi says it’s “my job right now to use my privilege as an American to amplify the voices of Iranians and ensure their calls for freedom are heard.”

“As an Iranian woman, I’ve been knocked over by the courage Iranian women are showing us every day,” she says. “And I have never been prouder to be Iranian. … As an artist, to be frank, I’m not writing a lot right now. I feel uncreative. The diaspora is angry, tired, and hopeful. Generating my own work right now seems utterly unimportant. I’m OK with that.”

There’s a time and place for writing, and right now the focus is on Studio’s production of English, which will help Toossi to amplify Iranians voices. (In a February 2022 interview with the Times, Toossi said: “Sometimes I’m talked about as a writer who writes political content. It just means that I write Middle Eastern people. And those people have not been on our stages very often.”) 

At least originally, Toossi had no designs on being a “political” playwright. When it comes to English and its storyline of four people trying to learn English she explains to City Paper, she says, “I wasn’t trying to write a play about the hardest or scariest part of immigrating. I wanted to write about language and identity and their interwovenness. I wanted to write about what the loss of language means for so many people—and how losing your ability to express yourself is painful, and what it does to a person when they are denied their humanity because they have an accent or don’t have the words.” 

Despite her growing name recognition, Toossi doesn’t come across as inflated; via email, she thanks me for watching A League of Their Own (as if it’s not already required queer viewing). When asked about New York’s response to English, before Amini’s murder, she writes, “The reception we received was really moving, really surprising. We—the cast, the team, the crew—had no idea how it was going to go.” 

Like so many shows, English’s world premiere was delayed for two years thanks to the pandemic, which, for Toossi, meant too much time contemplating the play without any clue what audiences would think of it. “I forgot the play was funny,” Toossi says. “The night of our first preview, when we got our first laugh, I had to stop myself from weeping with relief in the back row.”

Studio’s production, which retains director Knud Adams and star Tara Grammy, marks Toossi’s D.C. debut and opens on Jan. 11. She’s humble about how Washingtonians will respond to English. “Reception comes down to some unknowable chemistry,” she writes. “I have no idea how it will be received here in D.C.” Still she feels great about the decision to extend the show’s run by two weeks. “If I thought about it further, it’d probably feel terrifying,” she adds. “But the credit is all due to Studio and our cast of superstars, including Nazanin [Nour] and Tara, who are diaspora royalty.”

Toossi, who became a playwright instead of a lawyer after finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, credits Studio’s artistic director, David Muse, for bringing English to D.C. And while she was a micromanager—her words—during the New York production, she’s been more hands off at Studio. “I chose Knud, our director, who helmed our premiere/NY production. I trust him fully with English because the play became his, too,” she explains. Attendees can expect to see her in the audience at least once, but she won’t reveal when.

“I promised Nazanin I would not disclose when I’d be in the audience,” she says.

English, written by Sanaz Toossi and directed by Knud Adams, runs from Jan. 11 to Feb. 26, at Studio Theatre. $60–$105.