‘Native Gardens’ explores microagressions through comedy

The beginning of spring is a time for openings; after being cooped in by the cold, people begin slowly emerging from their self-imposed hibernation, the flowers begin to open up and bloom, and at Allegheny College around this time, a new production in the Playshop Theatre opened. This past weekend the Playshop Theatre welcomed in the spring with an outdoor production of Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens” in the courtyard of the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts.

“Native Gardens” is a traditionally one-act play with about a 90-minute runtime concerning the relationship between two neighboring couples, Frank and Virginia Butley — an older white couple with a son who no longer lives with them — and their new next door neighbors, Tania and Pablo Del Valle, a Latinx couple in their early 30s.

The name of the play comes from Tania’s desire to plant a so-called native garden in the yard of their new home. The Del Valle’s are expecting their first child and have big plans for their fixer-upper, including a “native garden” made of plants indigenous to the environment. As the Del Valle’s plan to fix up their new house they decide to remove the old chain link fence that separate them from the Butley’s and replace it with a nicer wooden fence, and in the process discover that their property actually extends two feet beyond the fence into what had been believed to be the Butley’s yard. Their desire to get the most out of their property interferes with the garden Frank planted, which takes up room in those two feet. The play takes place over the week that the fence is removed.

Traditionally performed inside in a theater, this production took place outdoors due to COVID restrictions, with the 30-person seating arrangement being agreed upon by the Playshop Theatre and the Allegheny College Health Agency.

“Native Gardens (like a lot of Zacarias’ works) uses comedy to underscore the tensions in contemporary American society, but also uses comedy as a way of trying to make us more understanding and receptive to the ways in which microaggressions, the ways in which racism at times, are lingering and accidentally — and at times intentionally —  used to create and cause harm upon others,” said Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies Mark Cosdon.

Indeed the tension between the Butley’s and the Del Valle’s becomes one filled with microaggressions, racism, ageism and general meanness.

“The idea of land and of appropriation, and of so called native gardens, confronting the idea of plantings that are imported from elsewhere all sort of combine and conflict with one another, as initially the two couples … begin as neighborly friends as a sort, but gradually tensions between the four start to take root too,” Cosdon said. “That is essentially the crux of the play.”

According to Cosdon, while the experience of directing the play was not his first time directing outside, it was his first time directing outside at Allegheny. Cosdon said that his favorite thing about this production of “Native Gardens” was that there were a large number of performers who made their Allegheny debut with Zacarias’ play.

“I’m especially thrilled to be seeing how completely invested these student performers and technicians are,” Cosdon said. “I think one of the things that keeps so many of us invested and working in the theater is this sense of community.”

Karen Gauriloff, ’22, who has been acting since she was eight years old, also made note of how important a sense of community is in a production.

“Normally when you are in a play you get really close with all of your castmates, and it’s really a group experience and it’s everyone together —  you hang out with them afterwards and you meet up beforehand,” Gauriloff said. “It’s (that) sense of community which is one of the things I love about it. Sadly, in the COVID world, engaging with other people (like that) is frowned upon.”

Gauriloff said that she had not even seen what two of her co-actors’ faces looked like until a few days before the performance. She went on to speak on the effect of the pandemic on the greater culture of theater, referencing how the community theater in her home of Saint Thomas on the U.S. Virgin Islands was shut down due to the pandemic,” She also referenced how the use of masks changes how actors project and limits their ability to emote and use their faces in their performances.

On the topic of playing Virginia Butley, Gauriloff said that she was typecast as a villain in her younger years of acting, and that with the role of Virginia Butley being the only one available to “someone of (her) description,” that it seems like a return to form. She described the experience of taking on the role as “definitely weird.”

“(Virginia) is an old lady who is pretty racist, so it’s a hard role for me to relate with, I don’t really relate with it, so it’s been a challenge to act as her.” Gauriloff said.

Gauriloff also brought up how she was worried that since she wasn’t familiar with the actors playing the Del Valle couple, that they would think that she, like Virginia, was a racist.

Thión Lee, ’24, has been acting for about a decade, but Native Gardens is his first performance at Allegheny, and he played the role of Pablo Del Valle. Lee said that he did wonder when he was asked to participate if he was just being asked due to his background as a Latino, but along with his co-actor Kyrié Doniz, ’23, who plays Tania, came to the conclusion that it was of no importance whether their background that was the reason, remarking that it was better that they play the roles than someone else.

This sentiment to not whitewash the characters of the Del Valle’s was echoed by others in the production. On his first time acting at Allegheny, Lee said that there was a benefit compared to acting elsewhere because at the college, he felt like he was being taught and allowed room to experience the educational facet of acting, while in other productions it felt like he was expected to know what to do and how to do it with little instruction or assistance. Lee said that this had an impact on his performance, allowing him to feel closer to the role and like he was given an opportunity to not just act, but embody the role more.

Lee also gave insight to the unique outdoor set up of the play and the equally unique challenges it presented.

“With this setup that we had, due to COVID, there (were) audiences on three sides of you, so you had to make sure you were still in character, still doing what you were doing, but also trying to open up to each side,” Lee said. “So that was certainly the most difficult part.”

Despite the difficulties, Lee expressed that he was impressed with the interplay in the difference in experience among him and his co-actors.

“It’s so interesting to see those levels of how people who have done this for so long or haven’t done this for so long still can come together and make this a beautiful production,” Lee said.