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Acclaimed Latina playwright Karen Zacarías shatters biases, a laugh at a time

A schoolyard bully's racial insults eventually led to a prolific Mexican-American playwright's funny, and spot-on, works.
A scene from the play "Native Gardens" by acclaimed playwright Karen Zacarias.
A scene from the play "Native Gardens" by acclaimed playwright Karen Zacarias.Dan Norman / Dan Norman Photography

Critically acclaimed playwright Karen Zacarías is pushing boundaries and shattering biases one laugh at a time.

What started as a coping mechanism with a schoolyard bully has blossomed into the genius of her playwriting: a prolific imagination that delves into human flaws and absurdities, and then spins them into characters that make diverse audiences laugh and think.

“Comedy allows us to look at all these ‘isms’ with a perspective that’s disarming,” Zacarías mused. Indeed, the Mexican-born playwright from Washington, DC pokes fun at everyone, helping us laugh at ourselves and experience other perspectives. And she weaves it all together in English, Spanish, Spanglish or all three at once.

Acclaimed Mexican-American playwright Karen Zacarias is one of the top 20 most-produced playwrights of 2016-17, according to American Theatre Magazine.Beverlie Lord

Since being named one of the most produced playwrights in the country by American Theatre magazine in 2016, Zacarías has had five world premieres running across the country at the same time. This is while many of her other plays were in production.

Among those premieres, her biggest are "Destiny of Desire," a telenovela extravaganza with a musical twist; and "Native Gardens," a politically-charged, bi-cultural hot-button comedy.

“If you go to a Karen Zacarías play, your blinders on the world open a little more,” says Artistic Director Blake Robison. “I see that happening with her audiences of all backgrounds.”

Theatre professional Jana Lynn loves Zacarías’s “clever wordplay” and “really good roles for actors” that are full characters: “They’re not two-dimensional [or] silly… They’re very real. And then she puts them in this situation and you just have to love them.”

Take Native Gardens, a play about a backyard border dispute between a young, Latino couple and an older, white couple. It erupts into a hilarious battle of class, age, ethnicity, taste, and consequential bad manners.

“You will find yourself siding with all four of the characters at different moments,” Robison said. “It’s a see-saw ride for 90 minutes. I don’t know a lot playwrights who can pull that off.”

Major theaters are taking note.

Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley, Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle, Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley in "Native Gardens," a play by Karen Zacarias.Dan Norman / Dan Norman Photography

NBC News caught up with Zacarías in Washington, DC, where "Native Gardens," in co-production with Guthrie Theatre, wrapped a commercially and critically successful run at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre. She spoke about her work and inspiration; here's a condensed interview.

Let’s start with that bully.

He would say things like ‘you spic, blah, blah, blah…’ I could never think of a good retort, and I would write something down so the next time I would be ready. It didn’t ever work, but in the process, I started writing up a backstory for him, and my first play. So as a 10 year-old, play writing was my way of understanding and humanizing my immigration experience.

Tell me about your use of language and how cross-cultural audiences grasp it.

The idea of Spanish being part of our community is a big thing. In the play that I’m writing right now, I have characters who only speak Spanish, with translation underneath it. In "Destiny of Desire," not only is there Spanglish but there are certain songs that are all Spanish and certain songs that are all English.

Some people say, ‘Why couldn’t you translate the song?’ And I say, ‘Well, what do you think happened in the song?’ ‘I don’t know, he was sad because he lost his girlfriend?’ And I’m like, ‘Bingo.’

A scene from "Native Gardens," a play by Karen Zacarias. Dan Norman / Dan Norman Photography

What’s behind some of your writing?

A goal of how I hope the audience will feel, [with] the idea that an engaged audience is a final character in the play and gives feedback. In a lot of my plays, the audience sometimes claps in the middle or something kind of rowdy happens, as opposed to more classical theater where people quietly clap at the end and leave. I want more energy than that.

You go right to the heart of issues. Life’s upheavals often reveal the negative stuff lingering below the surface that needs to come up and be positively transformed.

Yeah! I think art is helping us navigate this more visceral, vicious world that we’re living in now and answering in a way that doesn’t have the word Democrat or Republican, but has the word human on it.

I believe in the power of theater. It can heal, it can inspire, it can entertain, it can enlighten and it can anger and provoke.

"Destiny of Desire" seems destined for a Broadway musical. What does it take for Latino playwrights to get there?

One of the challenges with creating authentic Latino stories is making it accessible. For a play with Latino issues or music, producers have to believe there’s an audience for it and that Latinos will support it and go. But they also have to [produce] it for everybody. We’re an incredibly strong, untapped market. And in 40 years, we’ll be the majority of the population, so starting now is a good time.

So, before Broadway the work has to prove itself in regional theaters. Are things picking up for Latino playwrights or is it still a slog?

Many of these theaters had not had a play on their main stage written by a Latino in a decade. That "Destiny of Desire" and "Native Gardens" are running across the U.S. in huge theaters on main stages sends a powerful message.

It’s exciting that suddenly, after [being] relegated to small stages in the back or not even in the season, that Latino stories are [now] part of the American cannon of theater.

By 2018, "Native Gardens" will be one most produced plays across the U.S. in 13 regions and counting. Next stops: Orlando, Seattle and Denver. And after commercial and critical success in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Chicago, "Destiny of Desire" is now heading to Oregon Shakespeare Festival for six months. For more information on Zacarías plays: