As questions about immigration and identity surrounding who gets to be “American” continue to roil political debates, the play “Native Gardens” explores the divides of race, class and how they intertwine on a local level.
The play, showing at the Arena Stage, chronicles Pablo and Tania Del Valle, played by Dan Domingues and Jacqueline Correa, as they buy a fixer-upper home in a high-end Washington, D.C., neighborhood next to Frank and Virginia Butley.
Pablo is a rising lawyer from Chile looking to impress his colleagues at his law firm by throwing a backyard barbecue to make partner. Tania is a very pregnant graduate student working on her dissertation.
The two speak with Frank, played by Steve Hendrickson, and Virginia, played by Sally Wingert, about building a wooden fence. Frank agrees it will improve the look of his meticulously kept garden.
But things come to a head when it is discovered that part of the Butley’s backyard and Frank’s garden legally belong to the Del Valles. An all-out war between the two neighbors ensues.
The Butleys are portrayed as well-meaning, if sometimes racially tone-deaf. Virginia calls Frank “amigo” and both Butleys assume Pablo and Tania are Mexican.
The play looks to explore what it means to belong to a neighborhood and society, and who actually belongs.
Virginia confronts Tania for wanting to change the landscape of the neighborhood as soon as she moves in, while Tania argues the Butleys have never had to deal with feeling entitled to property that wasn’t theirs, all because of their privilege.
The actors can’t resist taking jabs at the current political climate. The Del Valles tell the Butleys they’re going to pay for the fence, a clear reference to President Donald Trump saying Mexico will pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Frank complains to Virginia that the Del Valles “must be Democrats.” Pablo later mirrors, “they’re Republicans.”
One of the play’s strongest moments comes when Tania confronts Pablo about the difference in their Latino backgrounds. He grew up with privilege in Chile, while her citizenship status was questioned, despite her family being in the U.S. for 200 years.
Pablo says despite that, he became a minority the moment he left Chile to come to the U.S.
A D.C.-specific shout-out earned audience laughter. Frank asks Pablo why he and his wife couldn’t have taken their natural garden idea to Petworth or even Takoma Park in Maryland.
“Native Gardens” runs through Oct. 22 on the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, located at 1101 6th St. SW.