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Karen Zacarias Explores DC’s Backyards in Arena Stage’s “Native Gardens”

The playwright's newest production comes to the Arena Stage this fall.

Photo via Arena Stage

The heart of award-winning playwright Karen Zacarias‘ new play is a story that plays out in DC’s own backyard. Literally.

Playwright Karen Zacarias. Photo via Beverlie Lord

“Native Gardens” premieres at the Arena Stage Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 22. The play is a co-production with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where it is currently receiving rave reviews.

But, at its heart, “Native Gardens” is a play for DC, with jokes and references meant for audiences that speak the language of the DMV. “I love this city,” Zacarias says. “[The play] is poking fun at ourselves, but it’s also a love letter to our city in a sense.”

Zacarias spoke with Washingtonian about her newest work before it heads East this fall.

So tell me about “Native Gardens.”

“Native Gardens” is a story set in Washington DC, in Northwest, and it’s the story of a young Latino couple that moves into a house that’s been a group house for a long time, and it’s become theirs and it’s a fixer-upper. And they move in next door to a more long-term, established DC couple who has a very beautifully kept garden. The older couple, the Butleys, are really excited to get this young family on the block. They’re excited to have people who are really going to own the house and fix it up. All is going really well until they realize they have very different gardening styles and they realize that the place the fence has been for the last 15 or 20 years is not the accurate property line. So things go downhill very quickly from there.

What inspired the play?

I was at a dinner party and someone brought up the fact that they were in a fight with their neighbors over something pretty small, and it was interesting. You bring that up and, oh my goodness, how many stories there were. And they all essentially, at the core, had many similarities to them, depending on who the players were and all of that. So I found that really interesting, and of course the way our political discourse has been going in this country – like how do we learn to get along with our neighbors who may disagree with us and have different values, but they’re still our neighbors? Our children need to grow up next to them. The first draft I wrote was during the political campaign and, of course, the world kind of changed. And I think the play kind of took on a deeper resonance in a sense.

A fight between two couples over a fence line becomes something greater in “Native Gardens.” Photo via Arena Stage

Do you think the show is going to play differently in DC than it has in Minnesota?

I’m so excited to see what will happen. I mean, I think the Takoma Park joke will land more strongly in DC. There’s a lot of little insider jokes there that play fine in Minnesota but, you know, the whole idea of chicken coops has more political resonance here in DC, right? Native gardening is very big in Minnesota, and the whole idea of indigenous rights and all of that. So every city brings with it its own insight, and baggage, and joy or reaction. I’m really interested to see what it does here in DC. People work and live in DC. They have jobs here. We talk about places in DC that everybody recognizes, so I think that will be fun. From colleges, to streets, to neighborhoods, anybody who lives within the beltway is going to recognize it as the language of the DMV.

What keeps you coming back to the Arena?

I was really lucky. Arena picked me to be their first resident playwright back in 2011, and I kind of grew up with Arena as an artist and as a person. They brought me in when I was still right at the emerging point of my career and gave me productions and let me fall down and picked me back up again. I’ve had a great relationship with Molly Smith for many, many years. We’re both friends and artists and actually neighbors. It’s just been a great home for me, and I’ve been lucky to have a number of different homes, but no other theater has dedicated themselves to fostering new American voices in the theater than Arena Stage. And I’ve never been produced more than I have been there. They’ve done four of my plays, three of them world premieres basically. No other theater has taken the risks on me the same way Arena Stage and Molly Smith have. And it’s in my backyard! It literally is my home theater.

Is there anything else you want people to know about this production?

It’s like getting on a train ride. It’s 90 minutes; there’s no intermission. It’s in and out. But I think you’re going to laugh a lot, then you’re going to think a lot. Hopefully there will be a lot of discussion about some of the very serious things that come up, which include ageism and classism and racism and taste and environmentalism and politics. There are a lot of issues that get talked about without ever directly getting talked about, all in the name of flowers … DC is a very smart town, a very serious town, and lots of important things happen there, but we’re all human beings, and we need to be able to sit down and laugh at ourselves with other people in the room. And I think that’s the power of theater, being in a big room with people who are from all walks of life, all reacting and experiencing the same thing at the same time. It can give you a feeling of community, which I think will be very vital to kind of get through what we’re trying to get through, both as a city and as a country right now. Hopefully laughter will help.

Editorial Fellow

Christine Jackson joined Washingtonian as an editorial fellow in summer 2017. She enjoys writing about art, culture, history, news of the weird and, occasionally, hockey. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri and is an alumna of the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, more affectionately known as Mizzou. For now you can find her hanging around Cathedral Heights.