“Your new neighbors”: Few phrases evoke such a mix of hope and dread. They’ll provide barbecues and babysitters, or else they’ll be the occasion for 911 calls and “Clean It or Lien It” signs. Karen Zacarias’s play Native Gardens, which recently ran at Washington DC’s Arena Stage, uses the new neighbors as a microcosm of social and demographic change. Zacarias wants to offer hope of reconciliation in an increasingly divided country. But reconciliation turns out to be much harder to make plausible than division.
The play opens on two front yards, perfectly imagined by set designer Joseph Tilford. The Butleys (played by Steve Hendrickson and Sally Wingert) have a proper English garden, all hedges and roses. Next door a majestic oak reigns over a weedy brick lot. But Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Dan Domingues and Jacqueline Correa) have just moved in, and Tania has big plans for that unprepossessing lot.
The Butleys are WASP Republicans—Virginia Butley’s feminism consists in being a pioneer in the defense-contracting industry—while the Del Valles are Latino Democrats. The Del Valles are into biodiversity; the Butleys are into bad puns. Everyone’s very civic-minded and well-meaning. The Del Valles smilingly endure white nonsense (“It’s just that you look so Mexican!”) and give reasonably amusing rebuttals. But the clash over English gardens vs. native gardens is the precursor to a much deeper conflict, which spirals out of the couples’ control despite everybody’s best intentions.
All four actors understand that their task is to inhabit stereotypes in a way the audience can relate to. They’re adept at displaying foibles. We see that these are all people who want to be good and believe that they basically are good, but whose best intentions are often defeated by their passions. Zacarias has lived in DC since 1991, and the play is larded with local references: sinister hints about the CIA, an argument conducted in Washington Post advertising slogans. When Frank Butley suggests the Del Valles should have moved to rapidly gentrifying Petworth, Pablo willfully misremembers him as telling them to go live in “Petco” like animals. But DC’s demographic transformation is the death of the “Chocolate City”: the black-majority era in the nation’s capital has been swept away by a tidal wave of white money. The story of a well-to-do Latino couple moving into a rich white enclave has very little to do with DC’s biggest current struggles over ubiquitous, unstoppable gentrification.