By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
Last week, I went to see “Native Gardens” at Arena Stage. The storyline: a white couple in their sixties, Virginia and Frank Butley, have lived in this Capitol Hill-like neighborhood for over 30 years.
Frank prides himself on his formal English garden. The new neighbors, Tania and Pablo del Valle, who Virginia and Frank assume to be Mexican (they aren’t), want to use plants indigenous to the region to create an environmentally-friendly, native garden. But first, they have to build a fence. The survey of the property line, the precursor to building the fence (read “wall” here), is where the comedy kicks off.
The play looks at gentrification, neighborhood change, diversity, implicit bias, historical inequities, and immigration — topics of interest to WRAG and to our membership — and does it through really funny dialogue. At one point, in defense of his flowers foreign to the mid-Atlantic, Frank accuses Tania of “botanical xenophobia.” The banter continues with:
Frank to Pablo: “Tania has problems with my plants because they are immigrants.”
Pablo to Frank: “No, because they are colonialists.”
I decided to see the play again because I wanted to listen more carefully. I wanted to decide whether to recommend the play to colleagues interested in issues of inequity. It was on the second time that another thought occurred to me: does satire work?
As I looked around the audience, I started to wonder how we were each perceiving the play.
When Frank tells Pablo that if they wanted to “go native,” maybe they should have moved to the “hip” neighborhoods of Navy Yard or Petworth, or even Takoma Park where they could have chickens, the audience at each performance laughed uproariously. But I wondered: Are we laughing at the same thing? I’m laughing because I think local playwright Karen Zacarías has written a funny line that captures how some see these neighborhoods in our region. Are others laughing because Frank got in a good zinger? I wondered which couple audience members identified with.
As the play continues, tempers flare and each couple digs in their heels. When the del Valles try to put up their fence, Virginia says, “You can’t just move in and take over.” She validates their past and current use of the del Valle property by explaining “It has been like this for a long time.” Sound familiar?
On my way out of the theater I heard audience members laughing at the jokes and the characters. I have no doubt that the satirical storyline and dialogue raised questions, spurred thinking, and provoked conversations. “Native Gardens” has a message, delivers it in a funny and engaging way, and is pertinent to our region and to our work. I hope you have a chance to see it. And, I’d love to hear your thoughts about satire. Does it work?