You may not recognize its name, but it's one of the most widely produced shows in the U.S. "Native Gardens" is a timely tale of prejudice, privilege and peonies, all wrapped up with a comedic bow, and it's the newest production to hit The Rep stage.
Ahead of opening night, we sat down with the show's stars and director Steve Broadnax to learn about this clash of cultures and how it makes you uncomfortable in all the right ways.
Opening night for "Native Gardens" is Friday, April 19. For tickets and more information, click here.
Tell me about your role and how you most connect with your character.
Kurt Zischke: I play Frank, who is a very high-strung, meticulous, OCD gardener stuck in the past in terms of is political viewpoints. I know a lot of people who are like this guy, basically the generation before mine who liked a certain order in their life and don't want that to be changed or upset in any way. Although their view of themselves is of someone who is much more embracing than in actuality.
Rachel Harker: I play Virginia, Frank's wife. She is a self-made woman who came up from nothing and married a much wealthier man. They are very well-to-do and established and she's got very strong opinions, but is also trying to be very welcoming to the lovely young couple that has moved in next door. I connect with wanting to be a good neighbor and have a connection with the people living next to you. Nobody wants to be disliked or to dislike somebody.
Gabriel Pena: I play Pablo. Pablo is an ambitious lawyer starting in the new firm in D.C. He's originally from Chile where he had a privileged upbringing, but due to who he wanted to marry, his family cut him off and he's been on his own in the States. Pablo and his wife remind me of my parents in real life. The couples had different class backgrounds and that caused tension between their families, so they came to the States to start a new life. I also connect with Pablo's passion and with a sense of justice and wanting to do the right thing, though sometimes he loses perspective and revenge and justice begin to blur a little.
Aurora Leonard: I'm playing Tania. She is a Ph.D. candidate who is also pregnant and has just moved into this beautiful fixer-upper home with her husband. I think she just really wants to have a stable, secure home life for her baby and I can definitely relate to wanting to have a stable home. If the home is chaotic, it just seeps into everything else, so establishing a healthy relationship with the neighbors is very important to her. She's incredibly passionate and connects with Frank because they both have an interest in gardening. She's having to juggle a lot — wanting to support her husband and her baby, but then this conflict is making her say and do things that are really out of character, coupled with being pregnant and it becomes very chaotic for her.
What is the importance of telling this particular story right now, both in terms of a larger national climate but also in this unique climate at The Rep?
KZ: What the playwright Karen Zacarías has done quite wonderfully is distill the tendency that we're having in this country right now to live in our own camps into a very personal incident between neighbors who, for all intents and purposes, should get along just fine. But because we all dig our heels in at one particular time or another, it becomes war. To me that's pretty symbolic of what's happening in our country today.
GP: Steve and I had a great discussion where, because he grew up in Little Rock, he was talking about how much this neighborhood has changed. There are two things that are repeated in the play: old neighborhood, new neighbors. The play is about inherited spaces, and The Rep is a place that has a lot of history, but that doesn't necessarily have to determine what happens from this point on. It's still the old Rep, but it's the new Rep, so it's really interesting to be telling this story about old and new neighbors and infrastructures.
Steve Broadnax: There's definitely a new season, a new era that's happening here at The Rep. I was so sad to hear it was closing. I was raised on this place. To know that it's coming back and there's a buzz in the community means an opportunity for a change. In life, things need to grow and change or else they'll die. That The Rep is evolving and doing a show like "Native Gardens" about the Latinx community is so exciting. Repertory theaters should serve the community, and I hope The Rep continues to reach out in that way so that people don't just talk about it, but that they know this is their home and that they're welcome here. We want people to feel a part of this entity because they are.
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What kind of conversations do you think people will have after the show?
RH: One of the things that [playwright Karen Zacarías] does is that she really shows both sides. It's approached with a lot of humor so it's not preachy or dark. You do get to root for and be appalled by every single person in this play. Everybody does or says something where you totally understand why they feel that way, but then they'll also have moments where you're just mortified and can't believe what they've done. We're all flawed and we're all wonderful. Mostly.
What have you learned about yourself or the world during the course of the show that really surprised you?
KZ: I've had a lot of conversations over the last few years with my wife about how aware — or as the kids say, "woke" — I am. I am a white man of a certain age who has always considered himself informed, aware, sensitive, a feminist, all these things and my wife just looks at me and goes, "No, you don't get it." There's no way you can understand the privilege under which you walk on a daily basis. If you don't want that privilege, it doesn't matter, it's still there. This play really points that out to me. My character lives with this mentality of "I'm not taking anything, I've just always had it." It's made me examine the different world that I walk in from other people, and my assumption that because I'm a fairly empathetic person that I have some sort of grasp of what that's like, and I do not.
SB: This show examines what privilege is culturally and gender-wise and all of those things, and I'm really learning a lot about myself in that.
AL: One of the things I really love about Tania is that she's always willing to engage in these uncomfortable conversations even though sometimes they end up very awkward or go the wrong way. She's still someone who's willing to enter that space. I feel like currently some people are very quick to make judgments or correct other people or shame them. What I've learned from Tania is that you don't have to do that. You can find similarities and do your best to see the other person's point of view and listen. Now, they don't always do that in the play, but I like that she is willing to engage in conversation instead of avoiding it.
GP: I think it's really made me realize who I consider to be my neighbor. It's never the people who live right next to me. I like to put up a bit of a wall there because I like my space. But then I think of the people who I see on the street or at the corner bodega or on the train, they can be total strangers but I can think of them as part of my community. It's challenged me to question how I decide who my neighbor is and how I treat them.
RH: With this show, I don't know that it's so much learning big revelations but that my eyes just keep opening wider. I notice things that I do and things that I don't do in regards to how the characters are acting. There's an nudging that Karen does as a writer that just makes you think or makes you a little uncomfortable. You reflect on how you act in certain scenarios or if you're being kind to your neighbor.
KZ: That's Karen's particular and unique gift as a writer because coming across with humor instead of preaching is not easily achieved.
SB: This show is widely compared to a sitcom. It really has that feel of a comedy of manners. We are able to laugh at the follies of something that is being exaggerated in the upper class, but we also see ourselves in them. We can place these groups of people in these situations and watch them deal with classes and racism and gender issues and we learn from them.
Give me your elevator pitch on why people should come see "Native Gardens."
GP: If you like a good fight and you like a good laugh, you'll like this show. You'll definitely see something you thought or said or has been said to you on the stage, whether you like it or not.
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Interview has been edited for length and clarity.