by Jack Getz
“Get off my lawn!” In suburbs across America, those four words can fill the heart with fear. They’re fighting words. In Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, they reflect the deep divisions of race and ethnic origin that many Americans would love to believe are things of the past.
Pablo, a high-powered lawyer, and Tania, his exceedingly pregnant wife, are a happy Latino couple. They think they’re living the American dream after moving to an upscale suburb of Washington D.C. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, are a happy white couple—and an older pair, dealing with a recently empty nest. To compensate, Frank has been pouring his love into a prize-winning garden. When Tania and Pablo discover the garden is on their property, sparks, acorns, and racial epithets fly.
On the surface, the argument is about a fence and a flowerbed. But it’s really about the barriers in our minds and hearts.
“Nobody comes off smelling like a rose,” laughs director Kate Alexander. “Karen Zacarías has made a bright, sparkling comedy out of some of the most painful issues of our time. She truly is a brilliant playwright.”
Alexander adds that Zacarías’ comedic brilliance might obscure her brilliant theatrical innovation.
She notes that, over the last fifty years, films and plays dealing with racial and ethnic tensions usually approach the subject from the point-of-view of dominant, white culture. A few exceptions reflect the experience of the ‘other,’ but Native Gardens breaks the mold.
“Zacarías gives equal representation to both sides,” continues Alexander. “That alone is daring. The fact that she does it so well is proof of her genius as a writer.”
According to Alexander, the playwright doesn’t sugarcoat the human tendency to reduce friends, neighbors and strangers to stereotypes.
“We all have an inner profiler in our heads,” she says. “Zacarías is unabashed about exposing our bigoted codes and assumptions. We hear the W.A.S.P. couple call the Latino couple ‘you people,’ and we see the Latino couple react with full hilarity. Conversely, we overhear and see the Latino couple imitate the white ‘uptightness.’ She reveals both sides—and she does so in a warm-hearted, loving manner, with fantastic, true-to-life dialogue.”
Alexander adds that Native Gardens isn’t a lecture. It’s a delicious comedy of manners.
“Zacarías isn’t on the attack,” she says. “We’ll all see ourselves in her characters—and we’ll all have a good laugh.”