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Iranian-American playwright is set on breaking expectations

Marjan Neshat (in white dress), Roxanna Hope Radja (behind couch), Nikki Massoud and Artemis Pebdani in Wish You Were Here.
Marjan Neshat (in white dress), Roxanna Hope Radja (behind couch), Nikki Massoud and Artemis Pebdani in Wish You Were Here.

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."

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. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Iranian American playwright Sanaz Toossi is having quite a moment. Her very first play, "English," just won a Lucille Lortel award for outstanding new off-Broadway play, and her work "Wish You Were Here" opened last week. Jeff Lunden has a profile of this talented new voice.

SANAZ TOOSSI: "English" was my first production ever.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Sanaz Toossi says when audiences walked into the Atlantic Theater in February for previews, she was nervous.

TOOSSI: 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.

LUNDEN: But things turned out very well. "English" received across-the-board raves.

The 30-year-old playwright grew up the daughter of Iranian immigrants in Orange County, Calif., and went back and forth to Iran many times when she was young. She says in both her plays...

TOOSSI: I wanted to break those expectations about what a play set in the Middle East has to be, like, aesthetically and also, like, tonally, you know? There are no moments of violence.

LUNDEN: Mostly, the plays are gentle character studies with an accretion of tiny details which add up to something deeply emotional. "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 as the revolution is happening, goes through the Iran-Iraq war all the way to 1991. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, screaming, inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where is my money?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Where is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, my God. You are so stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) She's not stupid. She's curious. With some girls, they grow up, and they're curious.

(LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who directed "Wish You Were Here," says Sanaz Toossi's work reminds her of another playwright.

GAYE TAYLOR UPCHURCH: 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 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.

LUNDEN: Toossi says she started "English" when she was in grad school studying playwriting, and the Trump travel ban was instituted.

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

LUNDEN: "English" is set in 2008, and its characters are either poised to emigrate from Iran or have returned from abroad. They talk about being caught between two cultures. Iranian-born actress Marjan Neshat has had major roles in both plays.

MARJAN NESHAT: With Middle Eastern plays, we're tasked to tell these, like, other stories. And it's so refreshing and so kind of profound to get to play these nuanced, multidimensional, funny, radical women.

LUNDEN: And Sanaz Toossi says that's a description of her own mother. She says "Wish You Were Here" is a love letter to her.

TOOSSI: My mom is from Karaj. She is sort of a mix between two of the characters, Nazanin and Rana. In the last scene of the play, there is a monologue from a mother describing what she wants for her daughter, and that is 100% my mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) 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.

LUNDEN: Sanaz Toossi worked with her collaborators to make the theatrical experience feel as authentic as possible. And Iranian-born actress Roxanna Hope Radja, who's in "Wish You Were Here," thinks it works.

ROXANNA HOPE RADJA: They sent a picture of our set to my mother, who - she's only just recently learned how to respond with texts, and she picked up emojis really quickly. So she responded, oh, it's so Iranian, dying rose, dying rose, dying rose, heart.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.