Just as Berkeley Repertory Theater is known widely as Berkeley Rep, English as a second language is known to go by its initials ESL. ESL is a revered buzzword among a certain stratum of international couch surfer 20-somethings who start their work histories as ESL teachers. Their lives stay on hold while they ponder what to “do” with them, as if that process is an art form. The glancing blow realization that it’s what life will do to them that determines “the petty pace that creeps from day to day of all [their] tomorrows” is still a far piece down the road.
ESL students are a mixed bag. Late one night, when I was teaching English at the Berlitz School in Washington, DC, the desk staff vanished from an already empty office building, leaving me alone with Mr. Pereira, a well-coiffed Uruguayan ex-government official (and outright fascist), who bragged to me about having lunched earlier in the day with President Nixon. When I started the conversation segment of the lesson by asking whether he had seen the Costa-Gavras Uruguay-themed film “State of Siege,” he leapt from his chair, his neck rippling purple with rage. Shaking his fist across the small desk that separated us, he screamed “¡Comunista!” [I resisted the urge to correct him by putting too fine a point on his outburst by saying, “In English, in my case, it would be communist with a small c.”] Pereira further elaborated: he said he had been held underground by Uruguay’s Tupamaro guerrillas for 90 days. While I was sympathetic, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the guerrillas, who unlike me, could not cut short their exchange with Mr. Pereira, and find saf7oygtgfe haven in their humble homes. The following morning, Pereira was gone, and the classroom seats were filled with welfare recipients enrolled in a secretarial studies course, with Berlitz providing the ESL unit. These students were not name callers. They brought homecooked meals to share during our lively discussions of international cuisine. We taught each other songs in our respective languages and celebrated birthdays together. Later on, I taught English at a bi-lingual high school where the Salvadoran students were more reluctant to participate in lessons or do homework. When I asked why, a boy of 14 explained that they were refugees from an oligarchic regime of 60 families, and looked forward to returning to their homeland once their side had won. So why learn English?
Sanaz Toossi’s “English,” brings together a cast of five to represent a cross-section of Iranian students, though it is curious that we never learn from which Iranian nationalities they come. The classroom cosmos becomes a crucible to capture the elements which teaching and learning English can sort and analyze. Each teacher and student arrive laboring under a backpack of linguistic and social history, some of it hidden, exposed through the rigors of what learning English demands, not only academically, but in a more sometimes insidious, sometimes insistent social way.The English language itself has many faces. To some, it can proffer hope. To others, it waxes fearsome. It can be loathsome to those who have only heard it shrieked or blasted through the teeth of invading armies. The legato charm of the vowel sounds from its Romanse inheritance fail to offset the hard-edged consonant menace incised by a brash Anglo-Saxon paternity.
Along with the names of the teacher (Sahar Bibiyan), three female students and one male, we learn each character’s attitude toward English. Marjan, the teacher, shares the wisdom that learning a new language offers a chance to come to terms with what’s inside of you according to your mother tongue, as you struggle to express it outwardly in the new language. Omid (Amir Malaklou) , the male student who is also the most proficient, jokes that it is nice to learn a language that doesn’t flatter itself as poetic. Another student, Goli (Christine Kayan), hopes to camouflage her lack of confidence by blowing smoke. She clowns, shrugging and giggling her way through class. Roya (Sarah Nina Hayan), who dresses pristinely, is older than the others. She has one goal: to speak in English to her Canadian granddaughter Claire. Her neediness and traditional outlook have put her Canadian relatives off. Voicemail serves as their hiding place from her persistent long-distance calls. Elham (Mehry Eslaminia) is a hard-boiled cynic, eloquent in Farsi, but seemingly unable or unwilling to express any semblance of her strong sentiments in English. She sets up the teacher Marjan as her antagonist. [The foregoing might seem like a set of spoilers, but irritatingly, the eager-to-please Berkeley audience signals that they “get” the humor by launching guffaws before actors can finish a sentence, effectively stepping on the actors’ punchlines.] Also, blocking has the actors with backs to the audience some of the time, so it takes several passes before we discern what they bring to class, including assumptions about classmates’ motives for taking the course (to pass the TOEFL exam, qualify for a job that guarantees a visa, etc.) As they interact via language-learning exercises, games, and conversation, we learn real reasons that underlie “good” ones, and indeed, their inner lives begin to reveal themselves. At the play’s end, the students (and their teacher) have not only learned the rudiments of a new language, but also that while talk may be cheap, it can be emotionally costly. A new argot can force you to compare scripts: the one you are newly learning with the long ago one that others wrote for you, which you have internalized, the one that can leave you with a false sense of self until your authentic self shows up speaking on your behalf, but in a different tongue and with a more limited, yet vibrant and resolute vocabulary.