D.C.-based playwright Karen Zacarías is one of the most widely produced playwrights in the United States. But of all her plays, only one is set in the D.C. region: “Native Gardens.” And this next iteration is special to Mexican-born Zacarías as the first Spanish language production of “Native Gardens” — “Jardín Salvaje” — will premiere this month at GALA Hispanic Theatre.
The idea for “Native Gardens” came to Zacarías while at a dinner party with friends. Conversation arose about petty disputes her friends were having with neighbors. One was in a quarrel about a fence, another a mailbox.
“We were laughing about how absurd these fights are,” Zacarías says. “But there was also something so primal about it. Like every conflict in the world, every war, is a fight between neighbors. I thought, ‘What would happen if I just made it about plants in the backyard?’”
“Native Gardens” opened to great acclaim in 2016 and has since become one of the most widely produced plays in the country. The play centers on an Anglo-white couple and a Latino couple who live in adjacent houses in a Northwest D.C. neighborhood, bickering over property lines and gardening tastes. While ostensibly a comedy, the play also examines privilege and what unites and divides members of a community.
When GALA approached Zacarías about a Spanish version of the play, the initial idea was to simply translate the existing text into Spanish. But after a translation was done by Gustavo Ott, a frequent GALA collaborator, Zacarías realized this production was more than just an opportunity to translate her play into Spanish.
To begin, it felt odd to have an Anglo couple speaking Spanish in their own home. So, Zacarías and Ott tapped into the multicultural Latino community in the D.C. region and updated the characters so they all came from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. One of the two couples now features Fabio, son of Argentine diplomats who was born and raised in the U.S., and his wife, who was born to a working-class family in Spain and moved to the U.S. as a teen. The second pair in this version includes Pablo, from an upper-class Mexican family, and Tania, who is New Mexican and the only one whose family has been in the U.S. for generations.
“It is not very common to have a play where people represent so many cultures in Latinidad with all of them living in the United States,” Zacarías says. “I’m really intrigued to see how this resonates with the multicultural Latino community we have here in the D.C. region.”
Zacarías notes that the plot has not changed at all, “but what has changed is the nuance of the microaggressions. It’s a deeper examination of who is native, who is an immigrant, who is an American. Everyone has their cultural biases and no one comes out smelling like a rose.”
The playwright is thrilled that her play will begin its Spanish-language journey in D.C. as well.
“We have such a wide range of people from all walks of life who speak Spanish here. It’s a very cosmopolitan city, so it feels like the right place to test this out.”
Zacarías hopes people will leave “Jardín Salvaje” with smiles on their faces. It is, after all, a comedy. But she also hopes the GALA production will inspire people to examine issues of privilege and what unites and divides members of the Latino community in the U.S.
“Over the years, I’ve had people write to me and tell me that they chose not to escalate a problem with a neighbor after seeing the play. That’s the best reward I’ve had from it,” Zacarías says. “While watching the play you may judge one couple and then judge the other, but in the end, I hope the person you are judging is yourself. How can we all be better neighbors?”
Jardín Salvaje opens February 4 at GALA and runs through February 26.