By: Samuel L. Leiter
Note: The following is revised and updated from my October 2018 “Theatre’s Leiter Side” review of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play at Playwrights Horizons, Off Broadway.
April 29, 2023: Every autumn, in numerous schools across the US, children work on projects, including plays, depicting the traditional story of Thanksgiving. That story, of course, would be set in 1621, and feature pilgrims (historically, Separatists) and Indians (now American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, or simply indigenous peoples) feasting together in peace—probably on an historically inaccurate turkey and stuffing—to celebrate a bountiful harvest following a year of devastating hardship.
In The Thanksgiving Play, an endearingly funny, considerably educational, satirical farce by Larissa FastHorse, who identifies as an indigenous person, we get a drumstick-in-cheek lesson about just how problematic that story is. Originally produced at the Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland, OR, it appeared at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter J. Sharp Theatre in 2018. A completely new Broadway production just opened at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre, with Rachel Chavkin replacing Moritz von Stuelpnagel as director.
In a program note for the 2018 production, Ms. FastHorse describes the familiar account of the early interactions of white settlers and indigenous peoples as a lie: “That which was recorded and reproduced was usually an intentional choice to support governmental policies of manifest destiny and genocide to make America larger, wealthier, and great.”
This is serious stuff, capable of inspiring reams of historical, political, anthropological, and ethnographic discourse. However, Ms. FastHorse pulls off the remarkable feat of expressing her dismay at the distortions by ridiculing them mercilessly while simultaneously making hilarious fun of political correctness. Plays by Native Americans are rarities on the New York stage. Hopefully, The Thanksgiving Play will open the door for others. Ms. FastHorse is touted as the being the first indigenous playwright on Broadway.
The setting is a conventional classroom (precisely designed by Riccardo Hernandez, and lit by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew); in it are four theatre artists—a director and three actors—joined to create a politically correct play about Thanksgiving. The frantically optimistic director, Logan (Katie Finneran, Noises Off), is a high school drama teacher who’s received a grant with which she wants to produce a 45-minute work of “devised theatre,” in other words, one created improvisationally in collaboration with her cast.
The actors, all white, are her slacker boyfriend, Jaxton (Scott Foley, The Violet Hour), a second-rate street performer, yoga practitioner, and obsessive PC advocate; Caden (Chris Sullivan, TV’s “This Is Us”), a middle-aged elementary school teacher and aspiring playwright, who uses picture slides to teach the others about Thanksgiving; and Alicia (D’Arcy Carden, TV’s “The Good Place,” in her Broadway debut), a gorgeous, sexy actress (costumer Lux Haac makes sure we notice this) whose guileless simplicity appealingly combines talent, ego, and ignorance.
Alicia was hired mainly because Logan, whose grant depends on her hiring a Native American, saw a headshot depicting her in indigenous guise and assumed that was her ethnicity. When Logan, despairing, learns of her mistake, Alicia responds: “Whatever, it’s theater. We don’t need actual Native Americans to tell a Native American story. I mean, none of us are actual Pilgrims are we?”
Alicia’s heritage and colorblind casting in general thus join the many PC-related topics with which the playwright stuffs her theatrical bird. Among these are veganism, yoga, feminine hotness, the commodification of sex, gender sensitivity, coded language, historical inaccuracy, public school prayers, meditation, female empowerment, white privilege, racial labels, and post-racialism. The script has been updated to reference things like George Floyd and BLM.
Laughs are also generated at the expense of street theatre, improvisation, acting as a career, and rehearsal practices. Theatre folk will get a kick out of a passage about dramaturgs being referred to, in all seriousness, as “the holy grail of American theatre titles.” Much of the humor stems from the characters’ well-meaning but comedically oversensitive tiptoeing around saying or doing anything inappropriate. When they perform, things sometimes get so out of hand, the comedy could almost be retitled The Thanksgiving Play That Goes Wrong.
In the 2018 version, the cast dropped character at several points to don costumes in clever interludes representing variant Thanksgiving scenarios. For the new show, a screen descends and we see video sequences using school-age children performing their own Thanksgiving riffs. The prologue, for example, shows grade school kids in Thanksgiving costumes singing hilariously clumsy lyrics about the nine days of Thanksgiving to the tune of “On the Twelve Days of Christmas”: “On the first day of Thanksgiving / The natives gave to me / A pumpkin in a pumpkin patch,” and so forth. As when the actors themselves performed these interludes, they are among the show’s cleverest moments.
Logan eventually has a brainstorm about the best way to dramatize Thanksgiving, one I’ll leave for you to discover. However—given how hard it is tell the story without offending someone—it couldn’t be more pointedly elegant. Director Chavkin (Hadestown), herself the artistic director of an experimental theatre collective (TEAM), handles these sequences just as effectively as she does the play’s fast-paced comedy, straight-faced cluelessness, and farcical mayhem, including football played—Ugh! (in more ways than one)—with a pair of bloody heads. This is not to ignore her sometimes allowing the actors to push too hard, including a little too much shouting, when more subtle approaches might have been funnier.
One comes away from The Thanksgiving Play feeling it’s impossible to dramatize controversial historical events in a way that will satisfy everyone. And why, for example, is the story of Thanksgiving automatically better because told by a Native American, even if it uses facts hitherto unexpressed? How much of a story’s power is lost if equity takes precedence over drama? And is even-handedness actually possible? That’s why Logan’s seemingly outlandish solution—sardonic as it may be—is so thoughtful.
In the real world, theatregoers will be thankful for MacArthur Genius Larissa FastHorse’s having exploded and explored the Thanksgiving story through satire both broad and subtle. The Thanksgiving Play deserves some thanksgiving of its own.
The Thanksgiving Play
Helen Hayes Theater / Second Stage
240 W. 44th St., NYC
Through June 11, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus