Dallas — Larissa FastHorse is an award-winning playwright, director, choreographer and performer based in California. She has produced numerous plays, including The Thanksgiving Play, Cow Pie Bingo, Urban Rez, Native Nation, Landless, Average Family, Teaching Disco Squaredancing to Our Elders: A Class Presentation, and Cherokee Family Reunion. Her work engages Indigenous collaborators to explore onstage representations of the joys and challenges that the Native community face. Larissa is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation.
FastHorse wrote the The Thanksgiving Play in 2015 during an artist retreat in Ireland. She chose to write about the Thanksgiving holiday because it is a universal theme to the American experience and particularly emotional for Native communities. FastHorse began her career as a ballet dancer, and when she retired from ballet at age 30, she embarked on a new career in script writing. Theater is glad she did!
The North Texas premiere of The Thanksgiving Play is currently running, through Dec. 1 (there is not a performance on Thanksgiving) at Undermain Theatre, directed by Producing Artistic Director Bruce DuBose. The Thanksgiving Play centers on a group of “woke” white thespians who scramble to devise a historically accurate and culturally sensitive elementary school pageant that celebrates both Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month. Good intentions collide with absurd assumptions in Larissa FastHorse’s wickedly funny satire of performative "wokeness,” and a brilliant take on the modern American cultural dilemma.
TheaterJones contributor Gina Weber chatted with FastHorse about the play, her history in the arts, and how we can become serious about inclusion.
TheaterJones: What is your most memorable or happiest childhood memory?
Larissa FastHorse: Oh, my…wow…I have so many. I would say actually one of my favorite childhood memories for us happened the day after Thanksgiving. I grew up primarily in the capitol of South Dakota from grade school on. They have this huge Christmas tree display in the capitol building. My aunt would always come to join us for Thanksgiving weekend. Then my dad and I would go and join a very fancy group of volunteers and decorate over a hundred Christmas trees the day after Thanksgiving, which was always just loads of fun. We got to create these magical things. That's one of my favorites actually.
What inspired you to become a playwright? You are also a choreographer and dancer.
I was a classical ballet dancer in my first career and then when I retired, which as you know you do by the age of 30 in ballet, I had to find something else to do. There's an organization, here in Los Angeles where I was, called Career Transitions for Dancers. They help dancers, because you're so young, to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. They helped me find script writing as my next career. I started in film and television because I thought you had to have a degree to write plays. I was dancing and I didn't have time to go to college because I was working, and I went into film and television since I was here in Los Angeles.
I didn't have a degree, and I was very disappointed in the film and television industry because of their reluctance at that time to accurately portray Native American stories and characters. Then I sold two TV shows. I had a feature film at Sundance, and then I got a commission through that for my first play. I've said this many time…I walked into the room and I was like… Oh, this is dancers with furniture!
It became a world that was a) familiar, but b) also really willing to do their best to do things properly and accurately, and in the way that I wanted them done. And, was also willing to help me kind of change the field… be more than just be a playwright, but to change the field, which was really my ultimate goal…and theaters are really good to me.
Tell us about the idea for The Thanksgiving Play, which has been performed off-Broadway and in L.A.
The concept of the play came from my frustration with American theater. Casting was a constant problem in our place. People would say your plays are uncastable because they had Native American characters in them. Which isn't true, but there we are. I kept coming up against that again and again, and I had a really successful career. I'm a full-time playwright, but I was kind of stuck. I gave myself the challenge of writing a play that dealt with contemporary indigenous issues but used all people who could pass for white. That was the challenge of the structure of the play. Then I had to think about what's all American…what's something that everybody participates in in some way? It is secular, that we all consider a part of American culture, and I came up with Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving obviously is, has always been, problematic in different ways for indigenous peoples. I've been aware of that in some levels. Once I started researching Thanksgiving, I was really appalled at how difficult this holiday is and how much of a lie it is. It obviously became a really fruitful place for me to write about.
What do you want your audience to walk away with after seeing the play?
What's most important to me for people to walk away with is to be questioning what they call truth, and questioning what they call history, and asking themselves “why do I believe those things? Why do I assume that just because it was written down at some point that makes it true?” It's interesting how today we look at the internet and we understand fake news…we understand people making things up. But for some reason we seem to believe that printing presses have a truth serum in them. As long as it is printed it must be true, and it must be honest. The reality is everything has always been done for political reasons or personal reasons for monetary gain, for all those. So much of our history has been told for particular political purposes. People walked away from the play and said to themselves, “I wonder why I believe that? I wonder what the real truth is?” … [And if they] start doing some research, that would be amazing.
How can American theater do a better job of inclusiveness, representing all Americans, especially indigenous voices?
You know, it's pretty easy. there's a really basic first step that American theater needs to do… that is to recognize that you're on stolen land. You need to recognize that, and you need to find out who those people are, and then you need to go to them and start a relationship because you need to find out how they can be of service.
To me that's the first step because if you can't recognize that you're on someone else's land, if you can't identify who those people are, and if you can't find some way to give back, all the rest of your work is just built on continued lies and continued blood money. You need to start finding ways to give back to the people on whose land you are profiting from. I feel like if you don't start there, the rest of it is never going to go as deep as you want it because the rest of it is still on.
In our area, the stolen land was originally occupied by the Comanche and Wichita. Is there anything else you want to say to the Dallas audiences about your upcoming play The Thanksgiving Play?
I always want to be clear that it is a satire, but it's also a comedy within a satire. It was really important to me to also make this play fun because that's something we get to experience in theater, that you experience almost nowhere else…is sitting in a room with a bunch of people that are strangers and laughing so hard your side hurts and having such a good time together…that's really an amazing thing that we don't get to experience in many other places.
It was important to me to say, “I get the place that white America is right now is hard, and it's complicated, and especially white liberal America…it's difficult to know how to keep up, how to educate yourself enough.” It always seems like there's more to do, and I do have compassion for how hard that is. I also made it a comedy so that it's giving back as much as it's also making you think.
» Gina Weber is currently a PhD candidate in the Doctor of Liberal Arts Program, Arts Management, at Southern Methodist University. She is a consultant working on improving the administration of art organizations. Gina volunteers at many local theaters, as well as at the Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, RAICES, and for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. She previously worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency managing environmental programs, international diplomacy, and the effective allocation of a multi-million-dollar budget utilized to address environmental and public health issues along the U.S./Mexico border.