When the Trump administration last week announced the planned end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), playwright Karen Zacarías responded almost immediately by opening up the rights to her 2013 play about “dreamers.”
“‘Just Like Us’ is a play based on the real lives of Dreamers,” Zacarías posted that Tuesday evening on Facebook. “I am happy to give free rights to the play to any institution who wants to raise awareness through a reading etc. about the human toll of cancelling DACA.”
“It was very impulsive of me,” says Zacarías, whose “Native Gardens” – a comedy about D.C. neighbors and their bordering fence – begins Sept. 15 at Arena Stage. “I kind of went rogue. My agent went, What? But they were very supportive. 170 places have asked for it, everything from middle school classrooms to theaters to universities. I’ve been spending an hour and a half every day responding and sending the play out. I was not prepared for that.”
The Mexican-born, Atlanta-raised and Stanford-educated Zacarías faced deportation two decades ago when she applied to become a permanent legal resident. Recently the Washington-based playwright spoke about DACA, “Just Like Us” and “Native Gardens.”
What was your initial response when you heard the DACA decision?
I think we’d been warned. But I really thought when I wrote that play that it would become outdated in a year or two. President Obama was talking about the DREAM Act; a plan was co-sponsored with a Republican [Lindsay Graham] and a Democrat [Chuck Schumer]. The reasons to support it were so clear, and I remember thinking, “This is the one time immigration reform might actually happen.”
When I moved to this country we had a special visa; my parents moved me to this country when I was young because they had opportunities to pursue. I was never undocumented. Then the government said, “Your parents can stay, but you have to go back.” I was like, “What do you mean, go back?” The idea that you’re 22 and you have to leave everything behind is a feeling I know very well.
Describe “Just Like Us.”
It’s adapted from the book by Helen Thorpe. The story is about four high school students in Denver, two who have documentation and two who don’t, and how as they get older they’re affected by this. None of these girls chose to come into this country. You understand on a personal level what it means for these children. When we did it in Denver, so many people said, “I never thought of it this way.” The whole idea of humanizing a topic – theater is so good at that.
What do you expect to happen with DACA in the next six months?
I’m very encouraged by the governors [attorneys general from several states have sued opposing the decision]. There is an opportunity to say yes, we’ll accept these young people and we’ll give them citizenship through education, or the military – they’re American in every way except on paper. The decision has made something that was under the radar just explode.
Why did you choose comedy for “Native Gardens”?
Comedy kind of chose me. I was at a friend’s house, and people described an argument they had with their neighbors, and then everyone chipped in with their stories. I was struck by how there’s something very primal, that all of these arguments involve custom and culture and property. And there’s something absurd when you look at it. It makes people go a little extreme. This was during the middle of the presidential primaries; we were all in this contentious place with our neighbors. That’s how it started.
Every play about Washington is about power or Congress or government, and I was interested in doing a play about power, but really about a D.C. neighborhood. And by making it a warmhearted comedy, I could have small sharp teeth in it, too.
“Native Gardens” is at Arena in a co-production with Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, directed by former Round House artistic director Blake Robison, who commissioned and premiered it at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park. Explain the ongoing partnership between you and Robison.
Blake had just moved here, and I was running Young Playwrights Theater. I called and said, “You don’t know me, but I need you to come direct a new play by a seven year old.” He did, and we became friends. I wrote “The Book Club Play,” and he said we’re going to do it. He commissioned “Native Gardens” and “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” So since 2007 I’ve had a long relationship with him, and I’ve had a long relationship with Arena Stage and Molly Smith. I feel like we’ve grown up together.
I am writing about a little known Supreme Court case that involves the orphan trains and Mexican families. It’s hard to get it onstage because it’s really epic, but it’s an interesting reflection on what we’re doing now. And it’s not a comedy. Comedy is a good way to build bridges; what a lot of people said in Minneapolis is, “Go to ‘Native Gardens’ and be able to laugh at yourself.” What I’m hoping comes across is that the person to judge most is yourself. And hopefully all of us can try to be better neighbors.