This season, Karen Zacarías landed a coveted spot on American Theatre’s list of the top twenty most-produced playwrights of 2016–17, making her the most produced Latinx playwright and one of the most-produced women playwrights in the country. This should not be taken lightly. By making the list, Zacarías follows in the footsteps of fellow Latina playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, whose work has also received significant exposure in the last decade or so. Zacarías’s plays such as Destiny of Desire, The Sins of Sor Juana, Into the Beautiful North, and Mariela in the Desert can be seen in all parts of the country, in Latinx and non-Latinx communities alike. Throw a dart at a map of the United States and you are likely to find a production of a Karen Zacarías play within a few miles.
One of her more popular plays is Native Gardens. After being commissioned and receiving its world premiere in 2016 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, Native Gardens will receive productions at Victory Gardens Theater, Arena Stage, the Guthrie Theater, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, and the Old Globe. Given these upcoming major productions, to say that the show deserves our critical attention is an understatement. Here, I discuss the May 20–June 11 production of the play under the direction of Brandon Weinbrenner at Main Street Theater in Houston.
In previous work, I’ve written extensively about the lack of Latinx stories on Houston stages despite the city’s size and Latinx-heavy demographics. In comparison to other comparable cities such as Los Angeles and Dallas, Houston has a noticeable lack of Latinx theatre, making productions such as Main Street Theater’s Native Gardens especially pertinent. Native Gardens is Main Street’s first production penned by a Latinx playwright since Nilo Cruz’s translation and adaptation of Life is a Dream in the 2012–13 season, Caridad Svich's The House of the Spirits in 2009-10, and Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics in 2006–07. Beyond the art-making, what strikes me most about Native Gardens at Main Street is the conversations it’s starting, specifically with whom, when, and where.
To put it simply, Native Gardens is about a property dispute. Yet, Zacarías takes this a step farther. The playwright shies away from mainstream stereotypes of Latinx people as poor, uneducated immigrants. The play’s Latinos have advanced degrees and are upwardly mobile. Their conflict stems from moving to a community that has traditionally been populated by Anglos. In this way, they are marked by their skin from day one in their new neighborhood.
Native Gardens tells the story of high-powered lawyer Pablo Del Valle (Bryan Kaplun) and his wife Tania (Briana Resa), a doctoral candidate, who are working toward the so-called American Dream. After purchasing a house next door to Frank and Virginia Butley (Jim Salners and Anne Quackenbush), the neighborhood’s old guard, the two couples find themselves in a heated dispute about the fence line. While the Del Valle’s have the blueprints and surveyor results that prove that the Butley’s pristine English gardens extend two feet into their neighbor’s yards, Frank and Virginia fight back, noting that they have always had this land and that their new (Latinx) neighbors want more than they deserve. The 23-inch difference according to the Butley’s or the 80 square feet, $15,000 difference according to the Del Valle’s, is the anchor of two couples’ problems.
In many ways, Native Gardens offers a fresh twist on a genre we have seen before; Zacarías’s play follows a line of plays about middle- and upper-class couples going toe-to-toe such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Dinner with Friends, God of Carnage, Clybourne Park, and Other Desert Cities. Aside from Clybourne Park, by featuring a Latinx couple, Zacarías’s play is able to go where the aforementioned plays cannot: Native Gardens is saturated in questions of class, privilege, and ethnicity and race. Zacarías holds little back in dramatizing many of the cultural macroaggressions that the Latinx population experiences on a daily basis, punctuated by discussions of privilege and entitlement with racially-charged phrases such as “imperialist occupation” and “you people.” In Wienbrenner’s words, “There’s nothing shy about this play; it’s very in-your-face, melodramatic, and up-front. That’s what was most attractive to me about it—how bold the play is.”
Although Native Gardens was written well before our current sociopolitical climate emerged, the play very much follows in a recent trend of accidental anti-Trump plays (see more at HowlRound). The Del Valle’s and Butley’s are quite literally debating building a fence to separate the two properties. It’s easy to see parallels between the dispute on stage and the larger political arguments playing out all across the nation in the time of Trump.
The play recalls the era of Manifest Destiny when the US acquired lands from Mexico through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, which saw Mexican citizens living in the United States overnight, where the protections legally offered to them were not upheld and a “Legacy of Hate,” according to Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuña, began. Our nation still sees the effects of the legacy of hate. In the play, Tania frequently has to defend her citizenship, (re)claiming her New Mexican heritage that dates back to before 1848 whenever the Butley’s mark her as a foreigner.
And watching this play in Texas, with an almost exclusively Anglo audience, added another dimension to Zacarías’s work. Texas is no stranger to disputed “property lines.” Until 1836, the land belonged to Mexico. Just like Tania’s family, there are many families who have been in Texas long before this land belonged to the United States. Yet, these people are treated as foreigners in their own lands. As the saying goes, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” And just before the play opened, Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 into law, effectively making Texas a “show me your papers” state. Much of the dispute in the play hinges on the notion that the Del Valle’s are foreign and don’t belong in not only the neighborhood, but also the United States. How much does legislation such as SB4 add to the challenges real-life folks such as Tania and Pablo face?
Even though Native Gardens is saturated in these systems of privilege and oppressions, the playwright isn’t preachy about it. Heated debates about race quickly turn to comedy, keeping the audience invested while still introducing audiences to the challenges facing Latinx peoples. Notably, both couples are very likeable. Even when they do something nasty or lose their cool, you want to garden with Frank and you certainly want to be invited to the Del Valle’s big barbeque party. The melodramatic style makes the content accessible without alienating audiences. And this, I would argue, is how audiences expand their worldviews. Anglo audiences need to see Latinx theatre. As Houston continues to grow and further cement its place as the nation’s most racially diverse city, we need a theatre ecosystem that reflects the city in 2017. We need stories on our stages that will not only entertain but also educate audiences about identities other than their own.
Perhaps Main Street’s successful production can help usher in a new age of equitable and inclusive theatre programming in Houston. During 2016–2017, there was a startling lack—although this has become the norm—of Latinx stories on Houston stages. Besides Native Gardens, Theatre Under the Stars produced In the Heights, Stages Repertory Theatre offered a critically acclaimed production, My Mañana Comes, MECA staged Sor Juana and the Chambered Nautilus by Angeles Romero, and the Spanish language company Gente de Teatro presented a full season of Latin American and Spanish plays.
For the 2017–2018 season, Houston will see a staged reading of Bernardo Cubría’s Neighbors by Horse Head Theatre and MECA, Alvaro Saar Rios’ Luchadora at the University of Houston, and Stages Repertory Theatres’ inaugural Sin Muros Latina/o Theatre Festival in February 2018 featuring new work from Mando Alvarado, Bernardo Cubría, and Tanya Saracho, in addition to the world premiere of Josh Inocéncio’s solo show, Purple Eyes. Perhaps there will be more, but this is all that has been announced as of June 2017.
One thing has been clear to me since started calling Houston home: Texas audiences are more than willing to see Latinx theatre, but they can’t see what theatre companies won’t produce. Local companies should be encouraged to program seasons that speak to the diversity of the local community.