By Nazanine Nouri
The Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi has won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Drama – one of the most prestigious awards in the U.S. — for her play “English,” her first-ever production.
It’s the story of a small group of adults in an “English Only” classroom in Iran, striving to master the English language well enough to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. The play was also recognized as the best new American play by Off Broadway’s Obie Awards.
The Pulitzer committee described Toossi’s work as “a quietly powerful play about four Iranian adults preparing for an English-language exam in a storefront school near Tehran, where family separations and travel restrictions drive them to learn a new language that may alter their identities and also represent a new life.”
“The people of Iran are in the midst of a woman-led revolution, and they’re putting their lives on the line,” she told the New York Times in an interview last month. “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.”
“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,” she added. “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 go to do this play in Iran.”
“English” first premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in 2022, and was co-produced by the Atlantic and Roundabout theater companies. It has since been staged in Boston, Washington, Toronto, Montreal and Berkeley, California. Future productions are planned in Atlanta, Western Massachusetts, Seattle, Chicago and Minneapolis.
Toossi was born and raised by an Iranian immigrant family in Orange County, California and grew up speaking Persian at home and English outside the home, visiting Iran regularly.
A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2018, she wrote “English” as a graduate school thesis project at NYU. The travel ban imposed on Iran by U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration had only just been implemented at the time, blocking Iranian citizens from visiting the U.S., and Toossi was “quietly furious,” she told National Public Radio in an interview.
Her advisor, the playwright Lucas Hnath, suggested she “just write the thing that you need to write…write from your heart,” she recalled in the May 2022 NPR interview, and so she did.
“I am a proud daughter of immigrants,” Toossi said. “I grew up with a lot of first gen kids. 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 chose to set her play in an English as a Foreign Language class taking place in her mother’s hometown of Karaj in 2008, featuring a group of students and a teacher who are either planning to emigrate or returning from abroad and feel torn 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,” she said.
Sanaz Toossi also wrote “Wish You Were Here” – a play portraying a group of five women in Iran between 1978 and 1991 whose lives and friendships change on account of marriage, loss and sudden departures – which premiered off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons last year.
In television, she recently staffed on “Invitation to a Bonfire” (AMC); “A League of their Own” (Amazon); “Five Women” (Marielle Heller / Big Beach); and sold an original idea, “The Persians” to FX TV with Joe Weisberg (creator of the FX TV series “The Americans”) and Joel Fields (co-creator with Weisberg of the FX TV series “The Patient”) attached as Executive Producers.
Toossi is a member of the Writers Guild of America and has been on strike alongside the guild’s other members.
“I’m incredibly proud to be a W.G.A. member,” she told the New York Times. “I love theater – theater is my first love, and my biggest love – but I can’t make a living in theater. If I could, I would give my whole self to the theater. But the W.G.A. meant I had health insurance during Covid and I make my rent. I’ll be on the picket line this week too, and for however long it takes. For so many playwrights, that’s how we subsidize our theater making.”