Social Satire for the NPR crowd?:
Intiman Theatre’s Native Gardens
“Wild Wicked Woke” is the 2018 publicity slogan for the Intiman Theatre. DeConstruct members recently attended Native Gardens and were left with a few key questions: Why this play, in Seattle, right now? How does the most recent offering from Intiman stack up against the past two years’ offerings of plays with similar themes/perspectives (2016’s Stickfly and 2017’s Barbecue)? Was the final production of the Intiman 2018 season wild, wicked, or woke?
First, I should say, Native Gardens was successful as far as conventional comedies go. The show was well-acted and all of the four primary cast members mined each moment of humor for the audience’s enjoyment. I found the late-night interactions between Pablo (Phillip Ray Guevara) and Frank (Jim Gall) particularly amusing. It’s also worth noting that the set and production design were beautifully executed. Our critique team enjoyed the show, overall.
The play is written by Karen Zacarías (a Latinx woman) and tells the story of a property line dispute between an upper-middle class, conservative, white DC couple (Virginia and Frank) and their new equally upper-middle class, liberal, Latinx neighbors (Tania and Pablo). Pablo, a high-powered Chilean lawyer, is married to Tania: a pregnant PhD candidate who reminds the audience throughout the play she’s from New Mexico, emphasizing her American-ness. The premise: Pablo wants to throw a backyard barbecue for his law firm only a week after moving in in order to impress his new boss. Tania, though angry that Pablo’s machismo got the better of him, backs the plan and they decide to landscape their yard following Tania’s plans for a native garden: a garden filled with plants indigenous to the geographic region. On the other side of the fence, Frank’s carefully manicured European-style garden will be competing for the neighborhood garden championship the same week as the barbecue. In the process of planning the new backyard Pablo and Tania learn that Frank and Virginia’s garden is encroaching on their property. Pablo estimates that the 80 sq. feet of land being colonized by Frank’s garden is worth tens of thousands of dollars, and rightfully belongs to them.
The couples quickly devolve into a Hatfield and McCoy-style battle royale over the garden/property line. Pablo and Tania hurl insults about land-stealing and Frank and Virginia rant about heartless garden wrecking. The play imagines itself as satirical, but our critique team was divided on how satirical it was and to what extent the play was conscious of its own satire. The characters reach a fever-pitch of ridiculousness but the script doesn’t have the bite of a really sharp satire. Rather, the dialogue sometimes feels like a canned political debate, carefully rehearsed by public radio callers on a variety of issues: xenophobia, indigeneity, environment, squatter’s rights, land ownership, Latinx vs. white culture, the list goes on. So, you can imagine how and why Seattle audiences might be drawn to this kind of a satire. It’s political but not TOO political. The comedy is there, but it’s never really blue or too sharp for a mainstream listener. It’s friendly, but you can really feel like you thought about something important watching Frank/Virginia and Pablo/Tania go through the motions of working out their differences and pay lip service to their various identities on stage. For example, Tania begins the play dead-set on any serious gardener’s ethical obligation to reject the colonizer’s plants and cultivate a native garden. However, at the end of the play the she seems perfectly content with Frank simply sprinkling in a few native plants to his traditional garden. tearing down the fence, leaving her ethical concerns nowhere to be found.
One question that lingered for our critique team was whether this play is an evasion or a re-thinking of class dynamics. In some ways the play is refreshing – after all, it follows an upper-middle class Latinx family living in an old-money, traditionally white neighborhood in DC. This follows the trend of the past two Intiman seasons: Stickfly featured an affluent Black family in their Martha’s Vineyard home and Barbecue is all about troubling the intersection between class and racial stereotypes when it comes to issues of addiction pathologies. Despite growing attentiveness in some forms of mainstream media to upper middle class POC experiences (think ABC’s Blackish or HBO’s Insecure) contemporary theater still largely revolves around poor/working class POC experiences. Staged productions often link racial ‘authenticity’ with socio-economic hardship in a way that TV may be moving away from.
Native Gardens is ultimately a play about what it means to be neighborly despite significant political, social, and cultural differences. Karen Zacarías’s script and/or Arlene Martínez-Vázquez’s direction endorses the kind of ideological compromise that could be read at best as genuinely hopeful or, at worst, as an uncomfortable suggestion that histories, colonization, and beliefs can and should be smoothed over in the name of “getting along”. The play is about negotiating ideological difference but only up to a point: conversation, even heated debate, doesn’t actually produce any tangible results in the play. In this play, the impulse to “talk about our problems” until we come to a solution doesn’t hold water. A good example is the scene between Virginia (Julie Briskman) and Tania (Sophie Franco) where both women attempt to negotiate the garden problem without the interference of their husbands. I like this scene in particular because it debunks the all-too-common misconception that women, if left alone to negotiate with each other, can solve conflict more easily than men. The play successfully negotiates and troubles the micro-political without packing a macro-political punch. It’s interesting, that’s for sure.
But I’m not sure it’s the kind of production that, as Artistic Director Jennifer Zeyl writes in the production program, “inspires a revisioning of our collective American Dream”. I’m wary of the assumption that there could ever be some fully unified, accessible, and integrated possibility of an American Dream to be had. I’m skeptical of any production that suggests that good-hearted humanism and an open mind is all we need to solve the country’s most complex social and environmental problems. Arlene Martínez-Vázquez’s Director’s note grapples with Zacarías’s political fence-sitting:
unlike many political plays, Karen doesn’t quite take a stance for one view of the other. She creates a landscape where all ideas can find each other, clash, grow, and morph. I guess, that is what she asks of us: to bring our ideas, to look at all sides, and grow and morph into more inclusive beliefs and practices.[i]
Is the play endorsing some kind of organic, inclusive assimilation? The all-too-happy ending of the play suggests that political debate and political practice can be freely adaptable with no real danger and not much at stake. In reality, power relations are always at play – and it seems unlikely that these couples’ real-world counterparts could so easily find common ground.
Here’s my take: sometimes communities must resist. Sometimes the powerful should have their power taken from them; by whatever means necessary. The play’s garden property line resolution at the end of the play, which functions as an allegorical critique of empire, attempts to leave the audience and upbeat comedic ending that pleases everyone. The colonizer and colonized end their border dispute with friendly handshake, laughter, and throwing out the maps. It’s difficult to tell whether the script is to blame, or the direction, (or a combination of both), but the final argument between the couples, the emergency birth, and tidy resolution in the epilogue is jarring and left our group debating the production’s vision. Our group debated how successful the play’s ending was, as a satire. But whether it’s meant to be an intentionally over-the-top pollyanna-ish ending or whether Zacarías had a less absurd tone in mind, the play still suggests, perhaps endorses, that compromise is preferable to resistance.
This production had genuine success as a conventional comedy: conflict arises, hilarious miscommunication emerges, and everyone leaves happy – that’s the structure of a traditional comedic plot. I’m just not sure it has as much success as a socially conscious, “woke” comedy. A “happy” ending, at least in this case, deflates the potentially productive historical and social commentaries embedded in the play. We had some disagreement in our critique team debrief about whether or not the soft conclusion outweighs the critique woven throughout the play. I’m not suggesting comedies are all obliged to take on these issues, but comedies billed as “a direct address of current political inequities…offered at a time when our country is in great need of healing” should be held to a higher standard of critique.[ii] In the spirit of Zacarías’s political ambivalence I’ll leave the final judgement up to you.
[i] Arlene Martínez-Vázquez – note from the Native Gardens Director in production program
[ii] Jennifer Zeyl – note from Intiman Artistic Director in production program
Native Gardens Produced by: Intiman Theatre
Native Gardens by: Karen Zacarías
Native Gardens Directed by: Arlene Martínez-Vázquez
Native Gardens Performed at the Jones Playhouse
Production Dates: September 6 - September 30, 2018