“Native Gardens” at Arena Stage: Poking fun to provoke a conversation

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?

2 thoughts on ““Native Gardens” at Arena Stage: Poking fun to provoke a conversation”

  1. Yes. I do. I saw a reading of this play in San Diego. The brilliance of this piece is that it not only lets people of different perspectives laugh together, it also challenges (rather than validates) everyone’s preconceptions.

    It’s hard to think of many other plays that reach out so completely to diverse audiences in the way this play does – let alone one that has a culture clash as its central conflict. There have been culture clash plays and musicals that teach tolerance of “others” (e.g., West Side Story, South Pacific) or that present a protagonist that learns something from “others” (e.g., M. Butterfly, The King and I). But the thing that is special about Native Gardens is that it, in fact, has no “other.” Both sides are on equal footing here, right down to having the same size town homes. Any “other” is generated from your perspective, not the playwright’s. And the play is a journey to see who REALLY is the superior couple.

    The way many comedies work is they prime the audience members to root against an antagonist and then rewards them by letting them share in his or her’s hilarious comeuppance. Many dramas, on the other hand, will try to help you see the other side. But this play is something entirely different. It is a play for the modern multicultural age. It is a comedy that lets you see the other side – however you’ve defined it.

    When I watched the San Diego reading, I sat next to both an older white couple and some young Hispanic friends and we all laughed together until the tears flowed. Yes, perhaps our laughter was (at times) about different things, but I think we laughed hardest when we recognized ourselves in the characters.

    The message I took away wasn’t so much one of tolerance of others, but rather of community. And that hit home, not so much from what I had witnessed on stage, but from what I had experienced in the audience. Without the satire and communal laughter, I can’t imagine the play having had nearly the same impact.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your experience. I fully appreciate all that you said, but particularly your comment about building community. I hope Native Gardens’ audience continues to grow.

Comments are closed.