The Interview: Pooya Mohseni (Part 2)
Interview conducted by Michael Raver
We seem to be in a theatrical era where most new work must address a socio-political hot topic. In a way, it’s not unlike the music of the ’60s and ’70s. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and their ilk were flooding the airwaves with commentary through art. It’s understandable, given how charged the nation was back then.
Today, as our culture is hopefully becoming more aware of our past missteps and learning to head off potential new ones at the pass, socially/politically relevant theater is majorly on-trend. At its worst, material like that comes across as preachy. Theater has always been a medium where soapboxes can only be disguised so much. Audiences can spot spoon-feeding a mile away. At its best, however, the results can be revelatory.
The latter is the case with The Atlantic Theater Company’s tender-yet-never-precious production of Sanaz Toosi’s ENGLISH. It’s been showered with much-deserved praise, including being named a NY TIMES Critics’ Pick. The piece, which features an ensemble of Iranian-American actors, is currently in performance at the company’s Chelsea headquarters.
Actress Pooya Mohseni, who plays ultra-dignified Roya, is continuing to reflect on her role in the piece, as well as the impact it has been having on audiences since opening last month. Directed by Knud Adams, the production has recently been extended until March 20.
How has the response from the Iranian community in NY been to ENGLISH?
We, the ENGLISH fam, are getting messages from people who’ve seen the show and the uniform message is “I felt that was my story.” Yes, some audiences feel closer to one character and somebody else sees their mother in my character, but they all see some part of themselves—their family or their experience in it. That means so much to our team, and me as someone who has never seen the experiences of my family, my people, portrayed on stage with love, without whitewashing, and with nuance and humanity. I am grateful and proud to be able to get on that stage and tell that story in its full glory without apology.
What does it mean to you, as a trans actress, to be telling this story?
As someone who’s at the intersection of two communities who haven’t had great representation up to now, I feel privileged to walk on stage and bring to life a cis character, while being an out and proud actor of trans experience. I feel that while Roya is definitely not a queer character, what she wants: being seen, acknowledged, respected and taken into account on her terms, is very much a struggle that my queer side understands. And, maybe all that truly boils down to one thing: struggle for equal personhood in the world goes above and beyond color, ethnicity, gender and sexuality: it’s about reclaiming your humanity as an equal. If a queer person of color sees me portraying a cis character as an artist, as a storyteller, then I am more than grateful to be able to be on that stage as my queer self, playing a loving mom and showing my audience that both can exist in one person.
The play was just hailed as a NY Times Critic’s Pick.
It brings me to tears that this play about a group of Iranians is getting this recognition. I’m so proud of Sanaz for her beautiful play. I am grateful for Knud’s meticulous, eagle-eyed direction which saw the nuances in places we did not and the talented, beautiful humans that are my ENGLISH castmates, who show up at every performance, ready to share their heart, their art and their souls with me. I am humbled and grateful for this opportunity.
If this play were to set a precedent for theater moving forward, what would you ideally like that to look like?
I would like the entertainment world to realize that others only become “othered” when they’re seen that way. Otherwise, we’re all humans, in nuance, in variation and our differences don’t have to put us in boxes but can expand our horizons. I’d like to see more stories about people who have not necessarily been spotlighted in a positive or even objective manner, but can still be fully fleshed out human beings,, not exoticized trinkets, with desires, faults, dreams and intellect, equal to any other story revolving around communities that are seen as mainstream.
What is something about the industry that you think is overdue for an adjustment?
I think seeing the world as solely Anglo-centric, Straight-centric, Cis-centric is long overdue for an adjustment. Even if we only look at America, there are so many more variations. Maybe that’s what some people are afraid of: being an American, doesn’t mean you’re white, or straight or cis and being any of those “other” things doesn’t make you any less of an American or less of a human, worthy of respect and civility. Our society is slowly, very slowly, shifting its views on people who’ve been perceived as different. But, if you think of it: we’re all different and in that way, we’re all the same. So, I think it’s time for the art of storytelling and the entertainment (and education) industry to recalibrate. At least that’s what I’m trying to do, along with many, brilliant and amazing humans in our business of show.
To purchase tickets for ENGLISH, visit https://atlantictheater.org/production/english/