Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Probing the Boundary Lines of Home with Karen Zacarías

Border wall between USA and Mexico

 "Border wall between USA and Mexico" by Kenneth Gill is published on Wikimedia Commons with a CC-BY-SA license.

September 15, 2017 was a momentous day for Karen Zacarías.

The Mexican-born playwright took the oath of allegiance to the United States and became a naturalized American citizen alongside twenty-nine other applicants at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two actresses from her latest play in the audience. Zacarías had called the United States home since childhood and used her plays to raise awareness of the experiences of immigrants. She was a proud supporter of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy and vocally opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump. However, being unable to actually vote in the 2016 election left her feeling voiceless; her frustration over the election's outcome drove her to finally apply for citizenship.

After taking the oath, it was President Trump's face that filled the screen next, exhorting Zacarías and the other participants to teach American values to other immigrants and "help them to assimilate to our way of life" in a pre-recorded message that several of the new citizens found disconcerting. As Juliet Sanchez, the Colombian-born schoolteacher who stood next to Zacarías during the ceremony, explained, "We can and should respect, celebrate, and embrace our new culture, but you shouldn't tell us to assimilate" [2].

The complexities of home and identity are familiar themes for Zacarías, who is the daughter of an accomplished Mexican epidemiologist and a Danish nurse and speaks four languages. She recalls, "I grew up in an extended family where it was not uncommon for someone to stop eating to write a poem on a napkin. I always knew I wanted to be a writer". [7] She titled her first two poems "I wake up with love" and "I am sick and tired of the moon." Whe she was six years old, she decided she needed a typewriter, like any serious writer, and saved up her allowance to buy one. Every Christmas she and her cousins entertained the family with a talent show featuring poetry, music, and skits. [1]

Growing up around ambitious artists inspired Zacarías' dreams, but also dispelled any illusions she may have had about what these dreams could cost her. "I have seen people become bitter because they had made big sacrifices and given everything to their art, and art (or any profession, no matter how passionate) will never give you everything back," she reflects. "I saw how artistic expression could be misused as a justification for self-indulgent, self-important and destructive behavior," she explained. "Consequently I resisted being an artist for many years." [7] 

Zacarías recalls her grandmother as "an early feminist who fell madly in love with the wrong man," the renowned "Golden Age" director and screenwriter Miguel Zacarías. "She struggled with her conflicting feelings for my traditional grandfather and her need for expression in a world that did not deem her worthy ... She was the true brilliant writer in the family, difficult and charismatic and contradictory, who was silenced in so many ways and died in her room alone..." Zacarías would later draw upon these memories in her play The Sins of Sor Juana, with its vivid portrayal of seventeenth-century nun-turned-proto-feminist-poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. [7]

Zacarías experienced her first major change in life circumstances at age ten, when her father received a scholarship to study at Harvard and moved the whole family to Brookline, Massachussets, where they unexpectedly decided to stay. Her father survived a deportation scare and eventually moved to Washington, D.C. to oversee the the Pan American Health Organization's AIDS program. [1][7]

 Meanwhile, Zacarías majored in International Relations at Stanford University and took a job at a Latin American policy think tank to pay off her student loans. She started writing plays by night and took classes in playwriting at Georgetown. Her classmates recognized her prodigious talent and encouraged her to apply to graduate school, but she was reluctant, insisting she wouldn't apply until she "knew I could support myself without betraying others." [7] Finally, another student promised to pay Zacarías' tuition so that she could use her training to help others. Zacarías enrolled at Boston University and, upon graduating with an MA in playwriting, founded the Young Playwrights' Theater, a nonprofit that teaches playwriting as a way to empower urban youth with literacy and conflict resolution skills. [1]

As Zacarias' nonprofit work immersed her in D.C. public schools, she became increasingly concerned with reaching young audiences through theatre. Her plays Chasing George Washington and Einstein is a Dummy introduced historical figures with disarming humor, while Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans retold a traditional fairy tale through a less Eurocentric lens. Her documentary-style play Just Like Us followed four Latina girls - two of whom are "Dreamers" - through the transition from girlhood to young adulthood. The play premiered in Denver in 2013 and was rapidly taken up across the country. [8] When Donald Trump announced he would seek to end DACA if he was elected President, Zacarías renounced royalties on her script and offered it to any organization that was interested. Requests flooded in from middle schools, high schools, universities and even a group of immigration lawyers. [4] Her most recent play, The Copper Children, tells of "orphan trains" taking Irish immigrants westward, a largely forgotten chapter of American history that produced a notorious custody case billed as the twentieth century's first "Trial of the Century" - some ninety years before the O.J. Simpson trial. [5]

As Zacarías' star has risen, she has had to work even harder to balance work and home, profession and family. "The truth is, I am an uncool artist hoping to buy a used minivan. I have diapers to change, grants to write, classes to teach, so I spend months writing in my head until I can sit down and pour it out on paper ... [Plays] are like children. No matter how many you've had or known in the past, each play needs to gestate and grow and be nurtured and molded by time, attention, inspiration and humor". [7]

Native Gardens, the play Zacarías had in production at the time she became an American citizen, was thus a product of its time. The play displays Zacarías' penchant for humorous dialogue and complex, vibrant characters, but anxieties about the future lurk just beneath the surface. Zararías says she was inspired to write the play after hearing friends trade stories of their disputes with next-door neighbors, squabbles that struck the playwright as "absurd in some ways, but the consequences were really real and emotionally upsetting. I kept thinking, 'Wow, it's almost like every single battle between nations or tribes boils down to this fight between property and culture.'" [3]

As Zacarías revised the script, she wove in references to President Trump's border wall and his demand that Mexico pay the costs. "There's been something in the atmosphere for much longer that made this comedy about gardening and planting and building a fence have a much deeper resonance," she observed. Indeed, only hours before the play's New York premiere, President Trump declared a national emergency to divert funds to border wall construction. [3]

Around this time, Zacarías gave birth to her third child and her odyssey took another twist. The Washington, D.C. townhouse where she had raised two children with her husband, lawyer Rett Snotherly, was feeling cramped and her go-to writing space - the kitchen table - was causing problems for everyone. Zacarías and Snotherly fell in love with an abandoned group home in D.C.'s Mount Pleasant neighborhood and put in an offer, but were outbid by a development company. When the wealthy developer backed out, the property owner offered Zacarías and Snotherly a chance to match the high bid of $975,000 before putting the property back on the market. Given only five hours to decide, they said yes. "Our parents came to see what we bought, and they all cried," recalled Zacarías. "They thought we had ruined our lives." "You bought a shell," agreed the first designer that they spoke to about renovating the run-down property. [6]

Undaunted, Zacarías and Snotherly pressed ahead with a redesign. They sold their old townhouse and cashed in their retirement plans. Snotherly even sold his beloved comic book collection. He had been collecting comics since he was eight, and his collection, amassing over 4,000 titles, had consumed the family's closet space. Zacarías and Snotherly hired local designers and builders and proceeded with the work in gradual stages over a five-year period to save money. In an interview with the Washington Post, Zacarías said she was pleased with the results: for the first time, she had a dedicated writing space at home and a large walk-in closet - with nary a comic book in sight. Her thoughts then turned to deeper reflections on home and belonging: "If we had started this [remodel] when COVID started, it would have been abandoned again. But we were lucky to live through it in this house. We had no idea how much this house would give back to us in a time when we really needed it." [6]

The University of Redlands production of Native Voices is directed by Gabriel Rodriguez. Three performances will take place at the Frederick Loewe Theatre on October 15, 16, and 17. All attendees must wear masks and show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in accordance with University policy. Click here to buy tickets.

Works Cited

[1] Brown, DeNeen. "Playwright Karen Zacarías finds inspiration in Arena Stage's Residency Program." Washington Post, October 14, 2021. 
[2] Chason, Rachel and Maria Sacchetti. "'Nobody is Going to Take This Away.'" Washington Post, September 16, 2017. 
[3] Gilroy, Maggie. "Gardens Versus Walls." American Theatre, vol. 36, no. 5, May 2019, pp. 32-36. 
[4] O'Quinn, Jim. "Speaking Truth to Trumpism." American Theatre, vol. 34, no. 9, November 2017, pp. 20-24. 
[5] Piantadosi, Francesca. "Portland." Dramatist, vol. 23, no. 2, November 2020, p. 58. 
[6] Sowers, Scott. "Vintage Comics Aid a Modern Renovation." Washington Post, March 4, 2021. 
[7] Svich, Caridad. "Karen Zacarías: A Writer's Tightrope." American Theatre, vol. 23, no. 1, January 2006, pp. 54-59.

[8] Zacarías, Karen. "Home." Karen Zacarías.

No comments :