Larissa FastHorse, whose often hilarious play is reportedly the first on Broadway by a Native American woman, sends up well-meaning white liberals, mocks the vanities and pretensions of thespians, and generates chuckles about identity politics, veganism and the public school system, while suggesting uncomfortable truths about the annual American holiday marking the Pilgrims’ seventeenth century meal with the Native Americans who helped them survive the winter.
“The Thanksgiving Play” illustrates the absurdity of Thanksgiving in America most realistically and effectively in four videos of children — the first featuring toddlers; the last high school students — putting on shows for Thanksgiving, which are inspired by actual teacher suggestions or documented presentations that FastHorse found on the Internet.
But those videos are but brief interludes in a play that focuses on four white teaching artists who meet to devise a 45-minute play for elementary school students about the First Thanksgiving. FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation of South Dakota, surely doesn’t mean to communicate the message that the effort to be sensitive to Native American culture is political correctness run amok. But that would be an almost understandable misinterpretation of a play that casts such a wide net in pursuit of laughs and traffics in such merciless caricature.
Katie Finneran portrays Logan, the play’s director, a failed actress turned drama teacher who recently put on a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” cast with 15-year-olds, which prompted a petition by 300 parents that she be fired.
Logan is a vegan, who considers Thanksgiving “the holiday of death…However 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. “ Also, she’s gotten a lot of grants to put on the show, which she hopes will win the school district over so that she won’t be fired.
In her classroom, Logan brings together the three people she’s hired as her actors and collaborators. Jaxton (Scott Foley), sees himself as a heteronormative yoga practitioner and professional actor, although his only gig has been as a street performer at the local farmer’s market. He’s also Logan’s boyfriend. Before the others have arrived, he gives her a gift of a “water bottle” (actually a mason jar) “made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.” – because it’s symbolic of the “pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race” that together they will “turn into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids.”
Caden (Chris Sullivan) ia an elementary school teacher and pedantic “history specialist” and frustrated would-be playwright. He has alarmingly ambitious ideas for the play (he’s already written a mammoth script) which he thinks should start 4,000 years ago with a huge bonfire, and Northern European and Native American ancestors celebrating a harvest festival on either side.
“I’m feeling your passion, Caden, and I love that,” Logan tells him. “But here’s the reality, it’s just the three of you..And it’s a school show. So fire won’t fly.”
The third cast member Alicia (standout D’Arcy Carden) is an actual professional actress from Los Angeles, although she apparently performs exclusively at Disneyland. Logan hired her with a grant for a Native American actress. After a series of comic 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.”” — but over the course of the play, it becomes clear that she has the most common sense, unintentionally and comically deflating the pc jargon and painfully convoluted efforts by the others to be culturally enlightened. (“The devising process is meant to empower the actors,” Logan explains to Alicia at one point. “Do I get paid extra for empowerment?”) Alicia eventually wins Logan over because of her “simplicity,” but annoys her because of the way she draws the attention of the two men.
“She does have a ton of conventional beauty and sex appeal,” Jaxton says at one point.
“Jaxton!” Logan exclaims, admonishing her boyfriend.
“I’m not saying I’m into that, but she has a lot to overcome. It will take time.”
“The Thanksgiving Play” does include some of the historical horrors about the treatment of Native Americans, most graphically when the two men re-enact an actual event in Cape Cod in 1631, when the Pilgrims massacred the 400 men, women and children in a Pequot village and used their severed heads as bowling balls, and then celebrated with a Thanksgiving feast.
And, although their rehearsals turn from painstaking to preposterous to pandemonium, the very ending (which I won’t spoil) could be interpreted as pointed commentary.
There have been changes since I saw “The Thanksgiving Play” Off Broadway in 2018. The production at Playwrights Horizons was less polished but also more playful. Instead of slickly produced videos, the student interludes were performed by the four actors themselves in funny costumes and with puppets. Under new director Rachel Chavkin, the set and costumes are more elaborate and expensive-looking; the new cast, while better-known, is just as game.
There have been a few changes in the script as well. The characters now introduce each other by including their pronouns: “I’m Logan she/her”– a now-common practice in writing, somehow hilarious when someone says it aloud. They now also mention both George Floyd and Black Lives Matter as reasons why this is a period when they have to be especially sensitive.
Another change, for me, is the existence of “Reservation Dogs,” a TV series created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, two fellow Indigenous writers for whom FastHorse has expressed admiration, and whose work features some of the same deadpan humor and tonal shifts that are in “The Thanksgiving Play.” But my second viewing of FastHorse’s play made me think of an episode of “Reservation Dogs” (season 2, episode 6, entitled Decolonativization), in which the regular Native American teenage characters in the show are bribed by gift cards to attend a “youth summit” led by a young woman who calls herself Miss Matriarch, and identifies as “a PhD student at Dartmouth, an auntie, a beader, a sister and a friend” and begins her session by acknowledging “the traditional caretakers of this land, the Cado, the Osage and the Muscogee of course, but before that were our Neanderthal relatives, and before that the Dinosaur Nation…also our reptilian relatives….” It’s laugh-out-loud funny, as are some of the jibes in “The Thanksgiving Play.” But as the episode unfolded, it became clear to me that Miss Matriarch, rather than just a target of ridicule (although certainly that), is also a dedicated educator and a healer. Her trust exercises and her encouraging attitude help the teenage characters, leading them not quite to healing, but to understanding one another a little better. The viewers understood them better as well.
“The Thanksgiving Play” has the laughs, but I don’t get the sense of the characters as dedicated educators, and it doesn’t lead us to any special understanding.
The Thanksgiving Play
Hayes Theater through June 4, 2023. Update: Extended to June 11, 2023
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $49-$210, Rush: $45
Written by Larissa FastHorse
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Scenic design by Ricardo Hernandez, costume design by Lux Haac, lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, projection design by David Bengali, hair and makeup design by Brittany Hartman
Cast: D’Arcy Carden, Katie Finneran, Scott Foley, and Chris Sullivan.
Photos by Joan Marcus