Neighborhood squabbles over ivy and ignorance take root in Virginia Stage Company comedy
By Denise M. Watson
Apr 10, 2019
At least the fight over the border wall in the latest Virginia Stage Company production, “Native Gardens,” promises some laughs.
But thorny issues of race, what it means to be American, and what it means to be civil in a time of discourse, are still there in the popular comedy that opens this week.
This is also the first time in VSC’s 40-plus-years history that it has produced a show with multiple Latino characters in lead roles. (VSC directors say it won’t be the last, though.)
“Native Gardens,” written by award-winning playwright Karen Zacarías, spends a week in the backyards of Tania and Pablo Del Valle, who have recently moved next door to the older Frank and Virginia Butley.
Tania is a very pregnant and very stressed doctoral student who is readying their fixer-upper for a party for her husband’s law firm. Pablo wants to make a good impression on his boss; this could pave his path to becoming the company’s first Latino partner.
The barbecue, however, is the same weekend that the fastidious Frank Butley’s yard will be visited for a gardening competition.
The neighbors learn they share many commonalities beyond Tania’s and Frank’s love of gardening. The differences between the pairs bloom, however. The white Butleys tramp through a thicket of assumptions with no apologies, such as assuming their millennial neighbors are Mexican because of their "look." Pablo is a transplant from Chile while Tania was born in New Mexico.
Tania wants to use plants that are native to the D.C.-area soil where they live. She doesn’t mind pointing out that much of the greenery that Frank uses in his traditional English garden, like the ivy, are really foreign plants.
The weeds only become more entangled when Tania starts to replace the fence separating the yards and discovers the Butleys have unknowingly been "squatting" on their land for years. Hilarity and tensions propagate as conflicts pop up along lines of age and gender.
Atlanta-based director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden wanted to work with the play because of its use of wit to examine the topical discussion. It’s also a production that is decidedly Latino in voice and texture.
“I love to tell stories about minorities, and it wasn’t about black people,” she said. “I love being involved in theater and having dialogue about what makes us different and the weapon of humor is disarming.”
Writer Zacarías has said in interviews that she came up with the play after attending a party in which people were talking about squabbles they had with neighbors. Zacarías, who was born in Mexico, said she concluded that fights were rooted in culture, property and taste.
She saw parallels with the 2016 presidential election and the focus President Donald Trump put on travel bans and building a wall along the Mexico border. The show has become immensely popular. “Native Gardens” is one of the most produced shows this year, according to broadway.com.
“I thought there was something poetic and primal and absurd about what makes us get so triggered and angry that it makes us lose sight of what’s important," Zacarías said in a 2017 interview. "I think in this political climate we all need a chance to laugh at ourselves and to remind ourselves we are part of a community.”
Lead actors Michael Earle Fajardo, who plays Pablo, and Alexandra Lemus, who plays Tania, said they relate to the characters and premise of the play.
Lemus, a California native, has familial roots in Mexico and Latin America and has had people question her identity. Fajardo hails from Costa Rica and came to the U.S. when he was 18.
“I know what it’s like to be on the outside trying to fit in and not knowing how,” Fajardo said.
That also included fitting into the diverse Latino cultures he found here. He has met Spanish speakers in the United States who automatically pronounced his name “Miguel” because they assumed he preferred the Spanish translation of his name. Growing up in Costa Rica, however, he was always “Michael.”
With all of the complexities in “Native Gardens,” Kajese-Bolden said, “It’s truly an American play.”