BWW Interview: Arena Stage's NATIVE GARDENS Hopes to Start a Conversation
We have all had them. Whether they were the apartment down the hall that blasted their stereo or the house next door that held parties till the wee small hours of the morning, everyone has had a problem neighbor. And while many a comedy has taken place when the mantra 'good fences makes good neighbors' goes south, Native Gardens aims to do much more than make people laugh. When Native Gardens begins performances at Arena Stage next week it hopes to start a conversation.
In Native Gardens, a young Latino couple, Tania and Pablo Del Valle, move into a Northwest DC community next to longtime, older and well-established residents, Virginia and Frank. While both couples have the best intentions of being good neighbors, a dispute over a fence tests their relationship and makes them reexamine their beliefs on race, gender and identity.
"Native Gardens becomes very personal because everyone can relate to something in it; whether it is a neighbor they have had issues with, or to being attacked because of the way they look. Certainly the issues it brings up like race, identity, gender, class, are very relatable to the world today," says Jacqueline Correa, who plays Tania Del Valle in a phone interview from Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre where Native Gardens is wrapping up an extended run.
Dan Domingues plays her husband Pablo, and adds that humor is an essential element to the play, especially in touching on so many hot button issues, "One of the great things about this play is that it tackles a lot of issues, and challenges a lot of assumptions, but it does so with humor. The comedy helps to temper those discussions so it's not just people yelling at each other."
The play is written by DC-based playwright Karen Zacarias. Native Gardens marks her fourth show at Arena. Despite a plot that sounds like a sitcom setup, both actors are quick to dispel the notion that this is simply a situation comedy lacking heft.
"There is a trend in the theatre, where plays are being written like sitcoms, right with two minutes scenes. However, what makes Native Gardens special is that the actors are having a conversation onstage and that these issues are being worked out by the characters as a result of their having a conversation," said Domingues.
Correa adds, "Karen lives in DC and has a realistic understanding of these conversations. And that's a word we focused on a lot in rehearsal, 'conversation', because no one wants to feel like they are being talked at. There's too much of that in the world right now."
Enhancing the personal, conversational elements of Native Gardens is the inter-couple dynamic. To build Tania and Pablo's relationship, both Correa and Domingues emphasized starting from a place of mutual respect - for each other and Zacarias' work.
"Because we respect and admire each other as actors, it allowed Dan and I to begin creating this rapport," says Correa. "Tania is a smart, resilient lady who is used to taking care of herself. Growing up in New Mexico, she didn't cross the border, the border crossed her. Because of the way that she looks, her nationality is always questioned and so that is one aspect of their relationship."
"I also feel like Tania being pregnant has a lot to do with their relationship, so Jackie and I worked on creating these tender moments," adds Domingues. "Pablo has been interesting to work on because he has two sides. He's a smart and successful lawyer at work, but then when he comes home he has to deal with this situation with the neighbors where these issues of gender politics, white privilege, and identity all come up."
Native Gardens was in its final week of performances at Guthrie when the deadly events in Charlottesville occurred, firmly reasserting many of the play's topics in a larger national conversation. Speaking with Correa and Domingues on the Monday following Charlottesville, they are cognizant that while the play raises some sensitive topics it is doing so in a manner that is positive, constructive and ultimately hopeful.
"Doing the show this past weekend, and watching the events unfold, was both challenging and a great relief. The message certainly hit home for the cast onstage and the audience. The most amazing thing was that as Dan and I would leave the theatre, the audience was talking about how grateful they were about how cathartic the play was," says Correa.
"I hope the audience takes away the importance of compromise and to keep coming back to the table with a level of respect and understanding for the other side," says Domingues. "Even though it is difficult to do sometimes, and you certainly see that in a city like DC, you have to listen to what the other side is saying."
Domingues' message is certainly a timely one as Congress returns to town just as Native Gardens begins performances. This production marks the Arena Stage debut for both actors and each is eager to perform at a regional theatre with such rich history.
"When my agent asked for a list of goals, and I came with my regional theatre list, Arena was right up there with the Guthrie. Why? Because these theatres are doing exciting work and I want to be a part of that," says Domingues.
Photo: Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle in Native Gardens, running September 15-October 22, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.