A fence divides two backyards in Native Gardens, a new play at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. A white couple has lived for a long time on one side of the fence. On the other side, a Latino couple has just moved in. When you see that fence, it’s hard not to think of Donald Trump’s wall.
But playwright Karen Zacarias wrote her script a couple of years ago, when few people expected Trump to become president. By the time Native Gardens made its world premiere—in January 2016 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park—Trump was leading polls in the Republican primaries, but he still seemed like a long shot to end up in the White House.
Now that Trump actually is president, will that change the way audiences perceive Zacarias’ comedy, as it receives its second production? Zacarias, an immigrant from Mexico who lives in Washington, D.C., pondered that question as she considered how much to revise Native Gardens for its Chicago run.
“As the political world changed, all the plays I’ve written took on a different resonance,” she says. “That’s a lovely thing about theater. But as a writer, how much do you want to embrace the changing world and bring it into your script? And how much do you just want people to bring the world with them when they see it? Those are interesting questions.”
In the case of Native Gardens, Zacarias didn’t see much need to change her script. She didn’t need to add new information about the president or America’s fraught debate over issues such as immigration. The play was already packed with serious subject matter, even though it aims to make audiences laugh.
“Humor can be an incredible instigator for all sorts of dialogue, but also a very great tool for self-examination,” says Marti Lyons, who’s directing the play at Victory Gardens. “If you recognize yourself in a character and you can laugh, then we’re able to laugh at ourselves. And hopefully that sparks some investigation.”
Zacarias echoes that point. “Humor is a great tool for having people examine both sides of an argument,” she says. “It’s a way of talking about a lot of things—like borders and gentrification and ageism and classism and racism and privilege—without it being a heavy play at all.”
In Native Gardens, the characters Frank and Virginia are wealthy, late-middle-age white conservatives who lovingly tend the garden behind their stately house in an historic neighborhood. As the story begins, they’re just getting to know their new (and more liberal) neighbors: an ambitious 30-ish lawyer from Chile named Pablo and his pregnant wife, a Ph.D. student in anthropology named Tania, who was born and raised in New Mexico.
“A wire fence with ivy divides them,” Zacarias writes in her stage directions. “One garden is a beautiful garden with lush grass and very symmetrical garden beds. The other is unkempt, dying peonies … straggly rose bushes, grass, a large oak tree, leaves, and acorns.”
Pablo and Tania hastily scramble to spruce up their yard to host a party for the partners at Pablo’s law firm. That means replacing that old fence with a classier one. But things get complicated when they find out the fence isn’t on the actual property line. War breaks out between the two couples.
“Zacarias manages to address many of our foibles … without smacking us in the face with them,” Cincinnati Enquirer theater critic David Lyman wrote last year, comparing the play with a famous TV sitcom of the 1970s. “It’s the sort of approach that made All in the Family such an unexpected success when it premiered 45 years ago.”
One actor who won plaudits last year in Cincinnati, Chicagoan Gabriel Ruiz, is reprising his performance as Pablo. At Victory Gardens, he’ll share the stage with Patrick Clear, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Paloma Nozicka—a “dream cast,” according to Lyons. “The trick for me is to get hilarious people in the room,” says the director, who learned improv comedy techniques at places including Chicago’s iO.
Native Gardens also features several unnamed characters, the people who change sets between scenes. They’re not just stagehands. They’re actually part of the action. As Zacarias explains in her stage directions, these extras “play the silent roles of the surveyor, landscapers, building examiner. There are very short theatrical vignettes between scenes that can help transform the garden. These workers should preferably be Latino.”
Speaking by phone from her home in Washington, Zacarias elaborates. “Watching the set change is part of the story. I don’t believe in automation. I believe in reminding people that theater is made by people. The physicality of watching the set evolve—or devolve, as it may be—has a visceral effect on the audience. And watching these silent Latino characters go in and out, and change the landscape of the play, is a bigger metaphor of what’s going on in this whole country.”
Native Gardens is the fourth Zacarias play performed in the Chicago area this year, following Just Like Us at Vision Latino Theatre, Into the Beautiful North at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, and Destiny of Desire at the Goodman Theatre.
Destiny of Desire—a tribute to telenovelas—includes a passing mention of Donald Trump, alluding to his comments complaining about Venezuelan Alicia Machado’s weight gain when she was Miss Universe in 1996. “It has to do with this beauty pageant, it doesn’t have to do with him running for president or anything like that,” says Zacarias, who wrote the piece in 2015. She decided to keep the line in her play, knowing that its context had changed. “We were talking about a reality star who said some unfortunate things about his Latina beauty pageant stars, versus talking about the president of the United States. So it has a very different ring to it than it did then. The world changed.”
In this changed world, Zacarias isn’t sure whether she’ll write plays that are more overtly political. But she does stress the importance of putting Latino characters onstage—and not the old stereotypes. “Native Gardens has a Latino attorney and a Latina Ph.D.,” she relates. “I know a lot of Latino attorneys and Ph.D.s, but those are not people you see onstage or in film very often. So the idea of just putting Latinos onstage as full-bodied members of American society, I think that in itself is a political act.”