Sanaz Toossi on her Pulitzer: ‘This signals to Iranians our stories matter’

From left: Tala Ashe, Hadi Tabbal, Pooya Mohseni, Marjan Neshat, and Ava Lalezarzadeh in “English,” set inside a classroom in Iran in 2008, at the Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan, February 11, 2022. (File photos: NYTimes)
Sanaz Toossi had just cleared security at the San Francisco airport when her cellphone rang at midday Monday. It was her agent, telling the 31-year-old playwright she had won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for “English,” her first produced play.اضافة اعلان

Toossi, who had written the play as a graduate school thesis project at New York University, was in disbelief. “I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ And when she said, ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Could you please just double-check?’”

The prize was real, and as Toossi boarded the plane home to Los Angeles, her phone began buzzing with congratulatory messages not only from around the US, but also from Iran, where her parents were born and where the play is set.

“English,” which off-Broadway’s Obie Awards recently named the best new American play, is a moving, and periodically comedic, drama about a small group of adults in Karaj, Iran — the city where Toossi’s mother is from — preparing to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The Pulitzers called it “a quietly powerful play,” and said of the characters that “family separations and travel restrictions drive them to learn a new language that may alter their identities and also represent a new life.”

The play was originally scheduled to be staged at the Roundabout Underground in 2020 but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic; it instead had a first production last year at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York, co-produced by Roundabout. It has since been staged in Boston, Washington, Toronto, Montreal, and Berkeley, California, with productions planned in Atlanta, western Massachusetts, Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi at the Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan, on February 14, 2022. 

Toossi, who was born and raised in Orange County, California, spoke Farsi with her family at home and English outside the home, and she visited Iran regularly while growing up. In a telephone interview Tuesday, she talked about “English” and the Pulitzer win.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did the idea for “English” come to you?I guess I wrote this play out of rage for the anti-immigrant rhetoric that was, and is, so pervasive in this country. I’m so grateful that my parents were able to immigrate to this country and make something better for both themselves and for me. They worked their asses off, and they created beauty where there was none, and it wounded me to see them and myself spoken of like we did not belong here.

What is the play about?It’s about the pain of being misunderstood, and how language and identity are interwoven.

You are a writer, and you wrote a play about language. What did you learn about words?A: I feel incredibly insecure about both my English and Farsi speaking abilities — I feel like I know 50 percent of each language, and I feel like I’m always bombing job interviews because the words never come to me in the way that I want them to come to me. This play was, of course, so much about my parents and immigrants and hoping that we can extend grace to people who are trying to express themselves in a language they didn’t grow up speaking, but I think it was also a reminder to be kind to myself.

What is it like to watch the play with audiences who are, presumably, mostly not Iranian Americans?It’s light torture to watch your play with an audience around you. I just watch them watch the play. I remember in New York when we did it, it was hard to feel like we were getting the wrong kinds of laughs some nights. But I also have been really moved by the non-Iranian audiences who have come to see the play and have found themselves in it. That’s what you ask of an audience, and that’s beautiful.

As the play is done around the country, you are creating more work for Iranian American performers. Was that a motivation?I grew up watching media in which I was incredibly frustrated by our representation and the roles being offered to us. I know so many actors in our community, and they’re so incredibly talented, and to feel like their talents were not put to good use was frustrating. I wanted to work with them, and I wanted to give them roles that they loved. It was really important to me to make this play funny, because I didn’t want to shut our actors out of big laughs.

What’s next for you?This year I had to ask myself if what we do is important. The people of Iran are in the midst of a woman-led revolution, and they’re putting their lives on the line. I wonder who I would be if we’d never left, and I wonder if I would let my roosari [headscarf] fall back, knowing it could mean my life. But I do really, really believe theater is important — I have been changed by theater, and theater has imagined better futures for me when I have failed in imagination. So I don’t know what’s next, but I just hope that in this year of so much pain and bloodshed, I hope this signals to Iranians that our stories matter and we’re being heard. And one day soon, I hope we get to do this play in Iran.