There are few things worse than a war with a neighbor.
Playwright Karen Zacarías started quite a conversation at a dinner party a few years ago while discussing a new play idea. What started off as an innocuous discussion with friends about an issue her mother was having with a neighbor in Florida turned into an all-out ranting session. Story after story was shared, all with the common theme – a neighbor battle is the worst kind of battle.
“Everyone was sharing their bad neighbor stories, which is really hard because your house is your castle,” said Zacarías. “Having tension with your neighbor next door is pretty horrible. All the stories that were shared were so primal and poetic, and it’s absurd – all the stories were about bushes and driveways.”
Her mother’s plight and those shared tales of residential proximity inspired what is a critically acclaimed play, now running at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley through Sept. 16th. “Native Gardens,” is the story of fast-rising attorney Pablo and his doctoral candidate wife Tania, who is pregnant. They’ve just purchased a home in Washington D.C. next door to Frank and Virginia, they of the immaculate English garden. But an upcoming barbecue for Pablo and his colleagues and a disagreement about a fence escalates the action between both houses quickly. What ensues is a story that examines many of our most divisive social issues through these neighbors, including race, class and privilege.
“The play looks at the problems in United States through a comedic eye lens,” said Zacarías. “Gardening is a big metaphor in the play, and no one comes out smelling like a rose.”
The play has received raves nationwide since its premiere in 2016, and a production is currently running at Pasadena Playhouse, directed by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander. It is another feather in the cap of Zacarías, who began her playwrighting career in earnest when she was an undergraduate student at Stanford University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in International Relations. That ultimately led to master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University, and a return home to D.C., where she still resides.
Born in Mexico and now a newly minted United States citizen, Zacarías initially came into playwriting when she shared a short story with a creative writing teacher, who remarked that she wrote dialogue very similar to playwright Harold Pinter. For her, exploring the spoken word was much more interesting than describing a room, so writing in a medium that champions dialogue became quite the natural fit.
She also grew up in a very artistic household with a tangible base of important influences; she is greatly inspired by the work of Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes and her grandfather Miguel Zacarías was a film director in Mexico in the 1930s and 40s, considered the golden age of Mexican cinema. He is known greatly for his work with famed film and music star Pedro Infante and was responsible for discovering Maria Felix.
As a writer, Zacarías is heavily staged nationwide. She has seen her work produced at major regional houses, and her play “Legacy of Light” saw a production at the now defunct San Jose Repertory Theatre. She has also been a part of major initiatives, founding the Young Playwrights Theatre in 1995, a program which brings arts education to schools in Washington D.C. And in 2012, she and other D.C. theatre artists founded the Latinx Theatre Commons, a group created to spread the depth and breadth of Latinx theatre throughout the country.
In the midst of Zacarías’ work to promote and educate about creating an entirely new American narrative on stages big and small, her bread and butter is certainly her plays. With “Native Gardens,” it is always a thrill for her to travel and see how varied her work is being done in the hands of the different actors and directors.
“Every time I see it, there are parts that I never knew were funny; it could be a look or a turn,” said Zacarías. “What’s wonderful about having lots of productions is that each production, director and scenic designer discovers something I didn’t know.
“The number of Latino gardeners, the silent roles for example, transform the stage all the time. I love seeing how these characters become people, and it’s incredibly delightful and fun to go see what people do with these roles.”
In the case of these neighbor battles, it’s not always entirely possible to sit around and wait for them to either move or die. And while stories of those who live in close proximity are stories everyone has, Zacarías believes there may be light at the end of the driveway. People may have their own biases on which couple they relate to before the show starts, but according to Zacarías, those views will probably change as the play moves through space.
“People told me over and over that they kept switching on what side of the fence they were on, but the person they judged the most was themselves. People kept saying, honestly, ‘What would I do in this situation?’ It’s easy to expect bad endings, but good endings are possible too if everyone wants that; a good ending is not that far-fetched.
“At the end of the show the audience often feels relief, healing and hope. I was surprised how much people needed that. The idea of laughing in the theatre is something everyone recognizes, and we can also see what all of us can do to be better neighbors.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Native Gardens”
Written by Karen Zacarías
Directed by Amy Gonzalez
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA
Through Sept. 16th
Tickets range from $40 – $100
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit https://theatreworks.org/