Karen Zacarias has never gotten into a fight with her neighbors. But nowadays everybody is coming up to her and telling her about their neighbor feuds.
“Someone told me that her neighbor had stabbed her father over shrubbery,” says Zacarias, the writer of “Native Gardens,” which opened this month at Arena Stage. “She said watching my play gave her PTSD!”
Things don’t get quite that violent in Zacarias’ play. The comedy takes place entirely in the Northwest D.C. backyards of two neighboring families: Tania and Pablo, a Latinx couple who are new to the city and have a baby on the way; and Frank and Virginia, white empty nesters with a prize-winning garden and no idea what “Latinx” means. When the young couple discover that their property line actually extends right over the neighbors’ pristine flower bed, an initially mild squabble ends with the grown adults lobbing acorns — and racially tinged insults — across the fence.
Zacarias, a native of Mexico who has lived in D.C. since 1991, got the idea for the play after a dinner party where guests traded horror stories about feuds with their neighbors.
“As I was going home, I thought, ‘Wow, in a way, almost every single fight — internationally, locally, whatever — is about these things,” Zacarias says. “They’re about what your place is in the world and culture.”
The play, like the characters’ fight, isn’t really about grass, of course: The garden becomes an excuse for the couples to clash over “touchier subjects like class, race, ageism and white privilege,” Zacarias says. In the show, Zacarias’ white characters learn they have literally been stealing land from people of color, but that’s not the only way the garden is used as a stand-in for a bigger fight. The play’s title refers to the type of garden that Tania hopes to cultivate in her yard, full of Mid-Atlantic plants that are more environmentally friendly than Frank’s classic garden of peonies and hydrangeas. “So Tania has a problem with my plants because they are … immigrant plants?” Frank asks.
Despite the odds, “Native Gardens” has a happy ending, and Zacarias hopes audiences walk away remembering that we could all use a little civility when discussing our differences. As she puts it, “We’d be better off if we thought about what it takes to be a good neighbor.” But before that, the show is a bit like watching a boxing match.
“The audience feedback and reaction and all of that is part of what makes the play work or not work,” Zacarias says. “The whole audience goes ‘oooh.’ It’s hilarious to get that kind of response out of a respectable, staid theater audience, which I’m trying to make less respectable and more fun.”
Karen Zacarias will tell you that “Native Gardens” takes place in Northwest D.C., but that’s as specific as she’ll get. “I’m not going to tell you which neighborhood it is,” she says. “I want everyone who lives in Northwest to think it could take place in their neighborhood.” Elements of the story will be familiar to residents of most D.C. neighborhoods; for example, two characters have jobs at Lockheed Martin and the General Services Administration, and they poke fun at “hippy-dippy Takoma Park.” “Most D.C. plays are about the president or the Supreme Court, not about the longtime residents who live here,” Zacarias says. “The ability to laugh about ourselves and celebrate the things that are unique about our city is important.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; through Oct. 22, $56-$91.