The Thrust: What Language Is Home?

In English and Farsi, two plays on now in Seattle and Portland examine our relationships to home and others through language. English runs through 4/28 at ArtsWest (in a co-production with Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble); Nassim runs through 5/12 at Portland Center Stage (with Boom Arts). 


A writer’s heart will always be in their mother tongue.
— Nassim

At Portland Center Stage, an accomplished playwright lurks in the background night after night as a performer — totally unversed in the material, unrehearsed, and likely to botch at least some of it — gamely muddles their way through his words, in both English and Farsi. Sometimes he’ll edit the script on the spot to match the actor’s actual delivery; other times, he’ll tap at the words on the board ’til they get it right.

In West Seattle, a (fictional) teacher does much the same as her students, fluent Farsi speakers all, muddle their way through English in choppy sentences and reluctant show-and-tell presentations. Above all, she admonishes them to stop leaning on their native language. Until they reject reliance on the words that come most naturally, she reasons, they’ll never make progress on the new ones they’ve resolved to learn.

Taking in both shows this past week — Nassim by Nassim Soleimanpour in Portland (Boom Arts and Portland Center Stage) and English by Sanaz Toossi in Seattle (ArtsWest and Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble) — it’s impossible not to hear them in conversation with one another.

Vahishta Vafadari, Janet Hayatshahi, Shereen Khatibloo, Emon Elboudwarej, and Newsha Farahani perform in ‘English’ from ArtsWest and Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble, through April 28. Photo by John McLellan.

The Seattle-based Seda is quickly making a name for itself in both innovation and quality. The group made its in-person debut in early 2023 with a sold-out run of The Forgotten History of Mastaneh (read NWT’s review here), a co-production with Macha Theatre Works in Taproot’s studio theatre, followed by a sold-out encore run at Seattle Public Theater later that year. Naghmeh Samini, the ensemble’s co-founder and Artistic Director, directed both Mastaneh and English, and some common threads are clear in the staging.

Like Mastaneh (which Samini wrote as well as directed), English resists complicated staging in favor of story, relationships, and language. Other than a multitude of chairs — prolific scenic designer and Seda co-founder Parmida Ziaei clearly had fun with this one — there are virtually no set pieces or props. Chih-Hung Shao’s use of lighting is targeted — a flickering bulb rings of benign neglect; intense white heat feels like an examination table — while Nabilah Ahmed‘s animated chalkboard projections feel engaging and light. It’s an easy-handed design that complements the story’s themes. Eschewing visual realism and the more typical elaborate set and crowded stage, how much can we still understand each other? In a play about language, it’s a beautiful and intentional staging.

Hannah Rice performs words by Nassim Soleimanpour in ‘Nassim’, which runs through May 12 at Portland Center Stage (a co-production with Boom Arts). Photo by Simsshot Photography.

In Nassim, a “theatrical experiment” more than a traditional play, projections are just about all we see at times. Each night, a new actor, who has never seen the script, reads the play aloud from papers and projected slides, stumbling (often) while acclimating to the material and its structure. Soleimanpour (“So lay man pooooooor,” he instructs) wrote the script in Farsi, emphasized words he wanted to learn in various languages, and had it translated. The playwright knows the story but not the language; the actor knows the language (aside from frequent bits of Farsi retained throughout) but not the story. How will the two intersect?

In both works, māmān (mother) serves an important role in relating to home. What does it mean when a mother can never see her son’s plays performed; can never view them in her home country in a language she speaks; is not allowed to speak her home language around her grandchildren; or hears her son has cast his given name aside? These are questions the plays grapple with as they consider, more broadly, what we give up in order to blend in, the costs of speaking, and the communicative and relational powers inherent in our words and languages. What will we say when exchanging words is hard? What will we learn about others? 

Both plays feature humans connecting as language fails them. In Nassim, a collaborative struggle over language is a visible part of the telling. Actors and audience members alike bumble through the simplest of phrases in Farsi. It’s a participatory experience, tripping over usage and pronunciation of words while still managing to connect with the playwright’s story. 

In English, meanwhile, the (fictional) stumbling is a sly device that allows the mostly English-speaking audience to relate without any other language background. As a stand-in for delivery in Farsi, the actors speak rapid-fire, unaccented English, busting out with words like “scintillating” in everyday conversation. In their halting English, meanwhile, we see they’ve picked up a great many individual words but struggle to convey what’s inside. That makes relationship-building hard with the teacher’s insistence on “English Only“; and, eventually, it looks like it’s all starting to take a toll on her, too. As the characters suppress their accents, struggle over sentences, and prepare to leave their homes, increasingly they ask themselves why. 

As with Nassim, the meat of English is in the journey; and even as some suspense builds with the story’s arc, don’t expect to come away with clear answers. Here, as in life, the journeys are more complicated than tidy tales, no matter how strongly we command the words that relate them. 

English is performed by Emon Elboudwarej, Newsha Farahani, Janet Hayatshahi, Shereen Khatibloo, and Vahishta Vafadari. Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission; performing through 4/28 at ArtsWest in West Seattle. Tickets ($48.50; $18.50 inclusion-rate tickets available) here. 

Nassim is performed by a different (unannounced) actor each night (among them: Portland stage veteran Chris Murray on the night I saw; Abbott Elementary’s Larry Owens on opening night; “The Unipiper” Brian Kidd; and over three dozen other local stage celebrities), featuring playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. (See full schedule of performers by date here.) Run time is approximately 80 minutes (varies by performer), no intermission. It runs through 5/12 at Portland Center Stage’s studio theatre, in Downtown Portland. Tickets ($25+) here. 

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of