“I was at a dinner party and someone brought up a fight they were having with their neighbors and someone else brought up a fight their parents were having with their neighbors, and we all started talking about how awful that is, because it’s where you live,” playwright Karen Zacarías says, when asked what propelled her into writing the comedy Native Gardens. “It’s both primitive and absurd, when you step far back and look at it. But there’s a principle at stake. I started thinking about how many battles in the world could be analyzed through the lens of two couples and that’s how I set it up.”
Mexican-American playwright Karen Zacarías was chosen as Arena Stage’s first resident playwright in 2011, and the partnership between writer and theater has been a fruitful one.
“This is my fourth production on the main stage and it’s the theater I have had the most shows at,” Zacarías says. Arena has previously staged Legacy of Light, The Book Club Play and Destiny of Desire, all to critical acclaim.“I feel like I’ve grown up in this theater. I think they invested in me as a person and a playwright and it’s helped me grow immensely.”
Native Gardens is a co-production between Arena Stage and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis where it has had a successful run. Zacarías is happy that it’s getting a chance to be seen at the theater that has come to mean so much to her.
In the play, Chilean attorney Pablo and Tania, his pregnant Ph.D. candidate wife, move next door to Virginia and Frank, a deep-rooted, Republican D.C. couple with an impeccably trimmed backyard. When a fence line puts Virginia’s prize-worthy garden in jeopardy, neighborly rivalry ensues as does the comedy.
Directed by Blake Robison, the show explores issues of race, privilege and where to draw the line on good taste.
“There’s a couple that’s lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years and a new young couple move next door in a ‘fixer upper’ and everyone is really happy about it at first,” Zacarías says. “The two families have different ways of gardening and it’s about the culture of gardening and the politics of plants. It’s a big-hearted comedy with a lot of sharp little teeth in it. By focusing on plants, we are able to discuss so many different things going on in our culture right now and our country right now.”
The show stars Dan Domingues as Pablo, Jacqueline Correa as Tania, Steve Hendrickson as Frank and Sally Wingert as Virginia. The foursome is reprising their roles from the recently celebrated run at the Guthrie.
Originally from Mexico, Zacarías has lived in the D.C. area since 1991. Her children were born and raised here and she is happy to call Mount Pleasant home. It’s one of the reasons she decided to set Native Gardens in D.C.
“I’ve always wanted to set a comedy in our own unique backyard of Washington, D.C., and I hope the discussion goes all over the map—from mosquitoes, mulch and gardening, to immigration, class and privilege,” she says. “I would love the audience to discuss the idea of what an American is in this day and age; what they would do if they were in this situation; and finally, to share their stories about arguments with their neighbors.”
As a Latino playwright, Zacarías says she has worked hard to get her plays seen, and being a woman has added to the challenge.
September 15 – October 22, 2017
at Arena Stage
Details and tickets
“Just being a playwright is super challenging. A playwright is the one profession where we compete with dead people who have better resumes than we do. For any new playwright, it’s hard to become that one or two slots in a season full of classics,” she says. “Only 24 percent of new plays are written by women, and women of color are even smaller than that, so it really is about beating the odds. I try to write something that will affect the audience in a certain way. I feel like I have been very lucky, but I know those challenges are real.”
“American Theater magazine said I was one of the most produced playwrights in the country and I think that largely has to do with the faith Molly Smith had in me by commissioning and premiering my plays,” she says.
Despite writing a play around gardening, Zacarías admits that she doesn’t have much of a “green thumb” and before researching the show, wasn’t much of a gardener.
“I’ve gotten a much deeper appreciation for it and I started planting some of my own things this summer,” she says. “Once you start studying it, you realize you can be an informed consumer and what aesthetics has to do with the environment and all of that and it’s really fascinating.”
Native Gardens, she says, is written in a very approachable, comedic fashion, and Zacarías expects audiences to have a really good time.
“People have compared it to I Love Lucy and All in the Family –old traditional comedies,” she says. “I find that humor is disarming and hopefully they will disarm themselves and laugh. I want people to think. I think the people you end up judging the most during the play end up being those most like yourself. But no one comes out smelling like a rose in this play. It provides some food for thought about how certain things take root and how each one of us could be a better neighbor.
“I’m looking forward to what the audiences here think of the work.”