Dallas — White children going through the American compulsory education system will emerge having been introduced to a lot of information about their ancestors’ customs, traditions, rituals and contributions to building society. This experience is not shared by non-white children who sit in the same classes learning a ton about white people but not very much about their own. Of the minority groups in the United States, the Native Americans are the most slighted and aggrieved. Many Americans who sit poised to celebrate Thanksgiving would probably flunk an exam over the holiday’s origins, and its connections (or lack thereof) with the indigenous people.
Larissa FastHorse takes a satirically comedic look at what happens when a group of culturally aware people try to make space for an ignored population without giving up some of the space reserved for their own. Bruce DuBose has masterfully guided The Thanksgiving Play creative team through what is a brilliant — and hysterical — conversation about good intention, privilege and the space between. This play is the second offering in Undermain Theatre’s 2019-2020 season.
FastHorse is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation. She is an award-winning playwright, choreographer and director. Her work is more focused on cross-cultural community work among and between the indigenous nations. She has received the PEN USA Literary Award for Drama, American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) Play Award, and numerous grants including the NEA Distinguished New Play Development Grant.
In an interview with TheaterJones, FastHorse stressed the importance of this form of writing: “I always want to be clear that it is a satire, but it's also a comedy within a satire.”
In an effort to avoid assumptions, especially given the importance to the playwright, let’s clarify. Satire and comedy are neither synonymous nor interchangeable. Comedy seeks to make people laugh. Satire challenges people to think more deeply about societal issues or norms and to laugh while doing that. They are different, but there are relationships, so they often overlap or intertwine.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating a day of thankfulness with a turkey dinner. Celebrating the heritage of the indigenous people is not problematical either. The question is whether through the American Thanksgiving Day ritual one can accomplish both. It is a real question and the one before the characters of Larissa FastHorse’s work.
Logan (Jenny Ledel) is a teacher who is responsible for organizing an event in recognition of Thanksgiving. She wants to create an organic piece which involves a Native American actor because that was part of her grant application. Based on information from the résumé, Logan hired Alicia (Kelsey Milbourn), whom Logan thinks is Native American. Boyfriend Jaxton (Garret Storms) is helping Logan put everything together. Caden (Ben Bryant) has written a play rooted in historical facts which he offers to Logan for use in her project. He’s excited at the possibility of seeing parts of his work onstage.
The actors try to design a program which will satisfy the administration and the parents, while being respectful of indigenous people. It becomes clear that they have no idea of how to do this. The more they try to include the indigenous people’s true heritage, the less feasible they think their work becomes.
Logan is so worried about getting it right, putting the historical truth about the Native Americans onstage that she is a nervous neurotic mess. She is the epitome of the well-intentioned person who uses props made of “broken windows and recycled housing projects.”
Jaxton is a counterbalance of Yoga-positioning, Buddhist-chanting, chakra-aligning, cute, white maleness. His best line reveals one of the points of the play “Do you know how hard it is as a straight white male to feel less than in this world?” That line comes during one of the funniest moments in the play while at the same time being spot on, a glaring moment of naked truth. The irony is that Jaxton finally realizes what the rest of the world has always known, and yet he wants sympathy. Even during his wokeness epiphany he still makes it all about him. It is what FastHorse means when she says she has compassion for how hard it must be for white America to keep up and to educate itself.
It might seem silly or condescending to talk about the importance of casting because, of course it always is. But this is a play inspired by the current conundrum within the theatre community around responsible casting and the telling (or not) the stories of people who are not white. In such a play, casting has heightened importance on several levels. Ledel, Milbourn, Storms and Bryant, as well as director DuBose, get it. They understand the conversation FastHorse is starting and are all in on bringing that conversation to the audience through their vivid characters — no doubt similar to white theatermakers with whom she has interacted. Theirs is an electric ensemble performance. While they work so seamlessly as a group, Storms is irresistible. His character has the funniest lines and he instinctively knows how to handle comedy.
Robert Winn's scenic design of an elementary classroom/auditorium is nicely detailed, with posters of productions that one assumes Logan has already directed for her kids, including Guys and Dolls, The Miracle Worker, and, most cleverly, Young Jean Lee's The Shipment (a play that Undermain has done), which is an uncomfortable comedy about black stereotypes written by a Korean American.
FastHorse's play is necessary, well-written, and entertaining. Perhaps more importantly, it is revealing. FastHorse has found the sweet spot of having this itchy conversation in a way that permits the audience to laugh without diminishing the seriousness of the issue. As to one of her intentions with this play, hopefully white theatermakers — regardless of “wokeness” level — can laugh at themselves. There's also a jab at white folks writing grant proposals for diversity initiatives.
From this reviewer’s perspective, a takeaway is this: It is sobering the extent to which the white majority will go to protect its version of history, even if it requires a complete erasure of another population.
The Thanksgiving Play forces audiences to look at that, think about it, and decide, as Logan has, what to do about it. Will children in the future be able to learn about their ancestry in school textbooks? Or because it was considered too hard to figure out what to do, will there cease to be any mention of them at all?