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Iranian-American playwright is set on breaking expectations

Playwright Sanaz Toossi just won a major playwrighting award for her first produced play.
Zack DeZon
Playwrights Horizons
Playwright Sanaz Toossi just won a major playwrighting award for her first produced play.

It's not every day a playwright gets two productions at major non-profit theaters within a few months, much less a playwright who had previously never had a single play staged.

"English was my first production ever," said Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi, 30.

When audiences walked into the Atlantic Theater in February for previews, she said, she was nervous. "Oh, my God, the terror of an audience coming was, like, definitely something I wish I had been prepared for. But also, something I think you can only learn by having an audience coming!"

Toossi needn't have worried – English not only won raves from the local critics, but received the Lucille Lortel award for outstanding new off-Broadway play. Now a second play, Wish You Were Here, has opened at Playwrights Horizons.

In both works, she said, "I wanted to break those expectations about what a play set in the Middle East has to be aesthetically, and also tonally. There are no moments of violence."

Toossi grew up the child of Iranian immigrants in Orange County, Calif., traveling back and forth to Iran many times when she was young. English began as her graduate school thesis at NYU. The Trump travel ban, which cut off Iranian citizens from visiting the U.S., had just been implemented, and Toossi says she was "quietly furious." Her advisor, playwright Lucas Hnath, told her "to just write the thing that you need to write. Write the thing that you love. Don't write what you think is going to be smart or would be cool. Write from your heart."

And so Toossi did.

"I am a proud daughter of immigrants. I grew up with a lot of first gen kids," she said. "To feel that disrespect coming toward my parents and Middle Easterners and Muslims in general, I felt a need to write of the pain of being misunderstood."

She decided to set that first play in an English as a Foreign Language class in her mother's hometown of Karaj, Iran, in 2008. The students and teacher are either planning to emigrate or returning from abroad and each one feels caught between two cultures. Toossi said she wanted to put the audience in the characters' shoes. "I knew that they would never understand how hard it is to learn a new tongue and feel stupid and feel, you know, isolated from where you're from."

(l) Ava Lalezarzadeh, Tala Ashe and Pooya Mohseni in Sanaz Toossi's play <em>English</em>
Ahron R. Foster / Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Theater Company
(l) Ava Lalezarzadeh, Tala Ashe and Pooya Mohseni in Sanaz Toossi's play English

She created an interesting conceit for the play: when the characters are speaking Farsi, they talk in fluid unaccented English. When they're speaking English, they speak haltingly, with accents. Only at the end of the play does the audience actually hear two characters speak in Farsi.

Both English and Wish You Were Here are gentle character studies, where an accretion of tiny details adds up to something deeply emotional.

"I think she, like Chekhov, is in love with the absurdity of what it means to be alive and what it means to be human," said Gaye Taylor Upchurch, Wish You Were Here's director. "And investigating that and looking at people in these moments that aren't seemingly big moments in their lives, but that really explode everything about them."

Wish You Were Here tracks the up-and-down friendships of five women over the course of 13 years in Karaj, Iran. It starts in 1978, during the revolution, and continues through the Iran-Iraq War, all the way to 1991 – when only one of these women is left in Iran. As these major political and social changes happen in the background, the women celebrate weddings, talk profanely about bodily fluids and sex and laugh a lot.

"So often, I think with Middle Eastern plays we're tasked to tell these 'other' stories," said Iranian-born actress Marjan Neshat, who has appeared in both plays. "And it's so refreshing and so profound to get to play these nuanced, multidimensional, funny, radical women."

Toossi said that those words could describe her own mother, and that Wish You Were Here is a love letter to her. She pointed to one character's monologue:

She will have a home./A home; one home./I won't teach her Farsi./She will never have to know what an F1 or IR2 is./She won't even know the word revolution./Never./Never.

She will never know how fast this earth can spin underneath you./How one day you can have a home and the next/as you are hurtling through the air/you will have to vanquish home/the word home/the idea of home/as anything that has ever existed or will exist again.

That monologue, she said, "is from a mother describing what she wants for her daughter. And that is 100% my mother."

Wish You Were Here runs at Playwrights Horizons in New York City through May 29.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.