How will you celebrate Thanksgiving? In “The Thanksgiving Play,” billed as a satire and running at Playwrights Horizons through December 2 (though not on Thanksgiving Day), playwright Larissa FastHorse points to some terrible suggestions:
Rewriting the 12 Days of Christmas as the 12 Days of Thanksgiving (“On the first day of Thanksgiving, the natives gave to me…”)
Dressing up as turkeys and singing:
“Two little Injun’s foolin’ with a gun,
One shot t’other and then there was one…”
Having students write letters of apology to the Indians and reading them aloud to each other.
Massacring the residents of a Pequot village and using their severed heads as bowling balls.
The first three are actual suggestions from teacher websites and the like. The fourth occurred on Cape Cod in 1631. All are comically re-enacted and interspersed throughout “The Thanksgiving Play,” along with some true and startling facts about a holiday that even the playwright has admitted she loves.
FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation of South Dakota, makes clear her point of view in a program note: “As an Indigenous person of this continent, 99 percent of what is given to me as history is not only missing millions of voices but is blatantly wrong….Spoiler alert: the Thanksgiving you know and love didn’t exist.”
But the point of the play itself is nowhere near as clear. One could easily take as its message (surely not what the playwright intends) that the effort to be culturally sensitive to Native Americans about Thanksgiving is political correctness run amok, and that the people who advocate it are ridiculous.
That’s because “The Thanksgiving Play” focuses on four “teaching artists” devising a new play about Thanksgiving for an elementary school. From the get-go, they are merciless caricatures of woke liberals. At the first rehearsal, Jaxton (Greg Keller) brings a gift to Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), his director and his lover, of a “water bottle” (actually a mason jar) “made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.”
Logan is a vegan who “struggles” with Thanksgiving because it’s a “holiday of death,” but, she says, “I want to lift up the acknowledgement that although my sensitivity about the slaughter of millions of animals, including forty five million turkeys, is valid, I am conscious of not allowing my personal issues to take up more space in the room than the justified anger of the Native people around this idea of Thanksgiving in our post colonial society.” Actually, she took the gig because she got lots of grants to do it, such as a “Gender Equity in History Grant,” and because she’s trying to keep her job after her high school production of “The Iceman Cometh” led to 300 parents signing a petition to fire her.
Caden (Jeffrey Bean), an elementary school teacher “assigned by the school district as our history specialist,” wants to start the play 4,000 years ago, and then re-create an event in 1565 in Saint Augustine, Florida, where as an act of good will Spanish settlers fed Native people.
Jaxton: “So you want us to celebrate Native American Heritage Month with a play about Spanish people holding a Catholic mass and eating pineapples?”
Caden: “That’s just one scene.”
And then there’s Alicia (Margo Seibert), whom Logan hired under a grant for a Native American actress. After a series of misunderstandings, it eventually becomes clear that Alicia is not Native American at all; she just thought that was the part they wanted her to play: “My agent had me take head shots as six different ethnic people…My Native American shot has me in braids and a turquoise necklace.” Much is made of Alicia as a dumb broad — “I’m not that smart…I’ve been tested” – who nevertheless wins Logan over for her “simplicity.”
The quartet of comic actors is game and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps things brisk (much as he did in Hand to God); there are certainly jokes and comic business that land as their rehearsals turn from painstaking to painful to preposterous. But the skewering is so relentless, and indiscriminate, that “The Thanksgiving Play” is the second play in a row that I’ve seen (the first was “The Prom”) that seems to define satire largely as “anything that will make you laugh.” It’s probably not a coincidence that the main targets of both are theater people. It makes much of the humor in-house, affectionate, and safe.
The Thanksgiving Play
Written by Larissa FastHorse
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Scenic Design by Wilson Chin
Costume & Puppet Design by Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd
Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman
Production Stage Manager: Katie Ailinger
Assistant Stage Manager: Jenny Kennedy
Cast: Jennifer Bareilles as Logan, Jeffrey Bean as Caden, Greg Keller as Jaxton, Margo Seibert as Alicia.