I have had these conversations. Believe you me, I have had these conversations.
Sometimes being a person of color means people don’t always know what to make of you. In white spaces, you are an outlier, people that can throw off the status quo in certain neighborhoods. And when you’re a neighbor whose Spanish music is a bit too loud for the lighter-skinned locals, you are constantly trying to prove that you want what they want – a comfortable home to live in, a good place to raise a family.
The production of the Karen Zacarías comedy “Native Gardens,” running through Sept. 15th at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is equal parts dazzling and frustrating, maybe because it cuts a bit deep and hits close to home.
Ph.D. candidate and very pregnant Tania (a delightful Marlene Martinez) and young attorney Pablo (quirky Michael Evans Lopez) not only want to begin working on a natural garden in their new D.C. home, they have the audacity to plan a barbecue. This cookout would go a long way to prove Pablo can become a good partner at his law firm. In a tale of two shrubs, the rasquachi nature of their yard cannot compare to the championship-caliber yard of Frank (straight-laced Jackson Davis) and Virginia (delightfully sharp Amy Resnick), who seem to go to great lengths to prove they are down for the brown and black folks, using the ultimate proof – a consideration to use a precious vote on Barack Obama.
Even though the relationship between the two sets of neighbors is amicable enough, there is certainly still a condescension that is off the charts from Frank and Virginia, who give off more shade than the big clumsy tree that hunkers down in front of Pablo and Tania’s new house.
Tania is certainly loaded with an empathetic tint. She can appreciate the pride in which Frank tends to his garden, but a huge discovery from Pablo changes all that – Frank’s beloved bulbs technically rest in the neighbor’s property, the result of a faulty fence line. This isn’t a big deal to Tania, who has no problem with keeping the fence line as is, sacrificing some square footage in her own yard. But that square footage equals tens of thousands of dollars, a price too high for the couple to ignore, especially considering they have a little bundle of joy on the way.
The relationship between the two houses, with a really well-paced staging from director Amy Gonzalez, on a delectable, gargantuan set by Andrea Bechert is at the heart of the drama. While Frank and Pablo speak on a level that is a bit more contentious, Tania and Virginia try to rid themselves of the manly-man culture that is making peace a bit out of reach.
Zacarías’ script is loaded with lots of solid laughs while maintaining its truth. While the four principals move the action along, the unsung heroes of the piece are Laura Espino, Mauricio Suarez and Ryan Hubbard, who function as the Greek chorus, pulling up shrubs, loading in the wood and cement for the new fence, and moving the plot along.
While the script certainly boasts a wonderful structure and a nifty knack for setting up and paying off moments, the denouement ultimately falls flat. Maybe it’s because I was still smarting from the unforgiveable racism that Virginia brought forth, which felt like the couple’s most truthful viewpoints throughout the entire play. Based on a scene about 20 minutes earlier, it was hard to accept what felt like a clumsy deus ex machina.
I think I get it though – neighbors have no choice but to try and keep it civil, especially when houses share a fence, or if there is no fence, an entire backyard. So even though it felt as if there was an attempt at a kumbaya moment, it still rings hollow.
The sad poetry of the piece is that people of color must constantly work to prove they belong. While the piece uses humor as its weapon, it reflects on tougher issues. And one thing is certainly clear – neighbor fights are painstaking, soul-sucking and can be hard to resolve.
Weeds are ugly. Racism is ugly. It takes a lot of work to wipe out both.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Native Gardens”
Written by Karen Zacarías
Directed by Amy Gonzalez
The Word: Even though the denouement falls short, the play looks at tough issues with skill and humor.
Stars: 4 out of 5
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/