When Bob White was hired as Asheville Community Theatre’s new artistic director in March, the nonprofit’s leadership team was asking what he describes as “big questions, organizationally and institutionally” about issues related to all three components of its name.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do a season that allows us to explore artistically the things that we are earnestly thinking about organizationally?’” White says. “That brought us back around to these ideas of community building and living together in community. So, every single play in our season treats that issue, that idea, in some way.”
The 2022-23 Mainstage Season began in late September with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and was followed in December by Elf: The Musical. The latter made ACT history by becoming the first of its shows to sell out its entire run before opening night. Now, the theater presents what could be its most provocative production of the year.
Sugar and salt
Latina playwright Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens debuted in 2019. The story concerns new neighbors — a young Latino couple and an elderly white couple — in Washington, D.C., who become embroiled in a property line dispute. The show confronts issues of class, privilege, entitlement and how to communicate through conflict.
Along with themes exploring racism and property ownership, the play also explores the distinction and environmental impacts of growing plants native to an area versus curating a foreign garden.
Despite these heavy themes, the production team emphasizes that Native Gardens is not nearly as bleak as it may sound.
“I think it’s a very sweet play,” White says. “It looks hopeless. It appears frantic. It’s urgent. There’s passion. And then it works out. And I think this is what we all sort of long for.”
In the process of learning more about Asheville’s theater scene and its major players, White was introduced to Candace Taylor. The Black female director is currently artistic director of Warren Wilson College’s theater department and has helmed numerous shows across the U.S. and locally. Taylor’s history of deftly tackling difficult subject matter convinced White that she was the person to deliver Native Gardens’ particular message of hope.
“It’s a play that you can come see, be entertained and enlightened, and go to sleep easy that night,” Taylor says. “And I think it’s extremely relevant to Asheville’s current housing situation, as well as [its] native gardening [issues].”
When it came to casting Native Gardens, Taylor found a practically ideal collaborator in Meghan Marcelo to play the role of Tania, described in ACT’s show notes as “a very pregnant Ph.D. candidate.” An Asheville native, Marcelo attended law school at American University in Washington, D.C. — where she lived in a neighborhood very much like the one presented in the play.
“I feel like I’m a real-life counterpart to a lot of these characters,” Marcelo says. “Obviously, it’s theater, so the characters are heightened in a lot of specific ways. But it’s the kind of play that I think helps build resiliency in talking about difficult issues, especially since it is framed in humor. I think that’s really, really helpful, especially when talking about issues of race and bias.”
Native Gardens debuts Friday, Feb. 10, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 26. In addition to the challenges of conveying Zacarías’ subject matter in a respectful manner, the cast and crew have various other obstacles to maneuver around — sometimes literally.
“It’s got so many living elements — or apparently living elements — and they need to change during the course of the play,” Taylor says. “We have plants, then we have a ripped-out garden and then we have new plants put in. So, all of that has to happen in a relatively realistic way.”
The set also features two backyards that Taylor describes as “contrasting in their beauty, but very elaborate in what’s going on in them.” Furthermore, there’s an unattractive, broken-down fence between the two properties that the characters climb over. But arguably the greatest set challenge is a large oak tree in the middle of the stage.
“How do we work that tree and get people from one side of the audience to be able to see all the way across the stage, through the tree, to the other corner?” Taylor ponders. “Things like that are a little tricky.”
White notes that ACT is fortunate to have Jill Summers as its in-house production manager, whose experience helped alleviate his concerns about the show’s technical elements while he was reading the script and imagining it on the main stage.
Even with such a firm foundation on the crew side, Marcelo wasn’t sure if she should audition for the role. Despite her personal connection to the setting and much of the material, not holding one of Tania’s core identities — Marcelo is Filipina and white, not Latina — led to what she calls “a lot of internal seeking” regarding her appropriateness for the part.
“There’s a complexity there that could also add to the conversation about the difficulties around identity and discussing it and the conflicts that arise,” Marcelo says. “I wanted to make sure that I was able to be genuine in my portrayal of Tania as a real person with an empathy that comes from shared, if not identical, experiences.”
While theater is often meant to be provocative, White believes that community theaters have an added impetus to establish healthy dialogue within the community about complex subjects. In his first full season as artistic director, he wants everybody to be able to see themselves in a role within ACT’s productions, which he hopes will help establish a communal connection that equity theater doesn’t provide.
“The community theater is where you’re going to see your attorney, your postman, your person that you see in line at the grocery store on stage or sitting next to you in the audience,” White says. “Everything that we do in society says, ‘I go, you don’t. I belong, you can’t.’ And at the community theater — the performing arts generally, but the community theater specifically — every kind of person imaginable is needed. Not just welcomed but needed to pull it off.”
Western North Carolina is particularly blessed in this regard, and it’s part of why the area has such a robust theater scene. The Native Gardens team agrees that the presence of such organizations in Hendersonville, Brevard, Waynesville and Burnsville, providing performance opportunities for average Janes and Joes, is essential to the long-term health of the theater community — and, in turn, the region overall.
“The ability to express oneself, the ability to be seen in that way; the fun of getting to know your neighbors and putting on costumes and doing warmup exercises and all of that is not only for one’s individual wellness but for community wellness,” Taylor says. “It’s not just sports. Sports don’t do it for me. Plays and art and those kinds of things do, and I think there’s a place for all of that.”