The most engaging plays invite their audiences into the world in the first few lines of dialogue, unconsciously providing audiences with a methodological framework for understanding everything we’re about to witness. That’s exactly what happens in Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play,” except in the Spotlight on Plays’ recent production (which aired from March 25 through March 29 virtually) there are two potentially incommensurable beginnings to the show.
The first beginning is a seemingly amateur YouTube video, meant to be an educational tool for elementary school teachers. In the video, a speaker goes through a modified version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with the lyrics changed to gifts presented by Native Americans on the first Thanksgiving—including moccasins, turkeys, and arrowheads. All of this is presented with cardboard cut-out drawings on popsicle sticks. The spectacle plays on stereotypes so broadly and crudely, with a knowing wink to the camera, that we know it has to be a Native American voice employing scathing satire. And indeed it is: This parody video was created by indigenous artist Ty Defoe, and is a new addition specific to this production of the play.
The second original beginning to “The Thanksgiving Play” as written by Larissa FastHorse is harder to navigate in terms of humor. We see the white woman director Logan (Heidi Schreck) hopping onto Zoom, surprised to see a gift from her fellow colleague and theater actor Jaxton (Bobby Cannavale). It’s their first day of rehearsal for a Thanksgiving-centric play meant to be presented in the fall at an elementary school. Jaxton has given Logan a mason jar made from glass recycled from broken housing project windows. To him, it’s the perfect metaphor for the creative alchemy they’re about to start.
“It’s symbolic of the ways in which we are going to create this play,” Jaxton explains. “We start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes and race, and then turn all of that into something beautiful, and dramatic, and educational. For the kids!”
Although these two beginnings to the show are thematically similar, both focusing on well-meaning but misguided attempts at gift giving, Defoe’s own singing voice is used in his opening, while FastHorse chooses to convey her satire through exclusively white actors. And while Defoe’s parody videos, which keep popping up as interstitial scenes throughout the play, were meant to enhance and deepen the meaning of Larissa FastHorse’s scathing farce on white wokeness, I can’t help but feel like they point out some of the irreconcilable flaws in FastHorse’s project. After hearing Defoe’s own indigenous voice singing, it’s discomforting to watch FastHorse defer her own words to white actors. In an attempt to stage her own erasure, FastHorse has done what the characters in “The Thanksgiving Play” are desperately trying to avoid: She has silenced her own indigenous voice.
The rest of “The Thanksgiving Play” shows the unraveling of these theater artists and the messy ways in which they engage (or disengage) from discussions around indigeneity. We learn that Logan and Jaxton are actually a couple; somehow Logan’s uptight need to control everything in a production and Jaxton’s laid-back zen approach to life prove irresistible to each other. Joining the duo on this adventure are Caden (Keanu Reeves), a well-researched school teacher with a secret passion for playwriting, and Alicia (Alia Shawkat), a recent transplant from Los Angeles who seems like she would be right at home reclaiming the word “bimbo” for her TikTok followers, and who was brought onto the project through a Native American sponsored grant.
While the beginning of the show displays all the characters’ good intentions for the project, the real motivations behind each of their involvement the show slowly becomes clear. Logan is using the show as a rebranding opportunity, since her reputation was sullied after parents opposed her high school production of “The Iceman Cometh.” Jaxton is doing this as a favor for his girlfriend, mystified by her veganism and feminist righteousness; he also has a big ego, thinking his street performances have made him a local celebrity. Caden isn’t interested in collaboration as much as he is getting his copious research out to the public, and under Reeves’s performance Caden often hides behind academic jargon so that no one can question him. Alicia is really there just to get a paycheck ever since she moved out of L.A.; the fact that she’s supposed to engage with indigenous history seems incidental to her desire for stage time.
In fact, the subject matter of the play, the first Thanksgiving, seems like it has almost no personal meaning for any of the characters. Indigeneity is really just the empty vessel into which all four theater-makers can pour their desires to be “important” and “relevant.” This is especially true for Alicia, whose supposed Native American heritage is actually an elaborate ruse. After characters consistently tokenize her to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples, Alicia reveals that her ethnically ambiguous features allow her to “pass” as any race she wants. She got cast for the play using her “indigenous” headshot, with hair braids and a turquoise necklace. This revelation sends the rest of the cast reeling, as they scramble to reconcile putting up a show about a culture that they have no immediate access to or experience with.
FastHorse has a skill for capturing the logical fallacies and delusional conclusions well-meaning white people make when confronted with their own biases. “The Thanksgiving Play” easily joins the ranks of David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” and Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation” as uniquely metatheatrical endeavors revealing the surreal experience of colorblind casting and different forms of bodily surrogation. The competing desires of theater—to entertain as well as to educate, to re-enact history as well as to speculate, to express the self as well as to embody the Other—are all catalyzed when arguments erupt over differing visions of the show. This is especially true when Logan and Jaxton discuss how to avoid any sort of redface embodiment, while also not ignoring indigeneity completely.
“It’s our duty as allies to say something for those who can’t speak for themselves,” Jaxton states resolutely.
“Or…,” Logan counters, “is it as allies, we have to be sure that they are here to speak for themselves? So if they aren’t here, does anyone speak for themselves? [Do] we just speak for white people?”
The quartet of high-profile actors assembled to embody these discussions are skilled at embodying the tensions of this “post-post-racial society,” each of them never reducing their characters to stereotype while also deftly exaggerating the the casually racist things people say to comedic affect. This is particularly true for Shawkat’s Alicia, potentially the most problematic character in the show. Shawkat is able to imbue Alicia’s apathetic stance to learning with a level of enticing seduction, turning her refusal to accept any personal or societal responsibility into a seemingly liberatory act.
Even though the show’s occasionally broad comedy suffers from being on Zoom (take a look at Playwights Horizons’ show clips to see the importance of an audience for the jokes to land), the ensemble of this show does an honorable job keeping FastHorse’s manic energy alive, especially during the group’s unruly devising process. When the show finally arrives at a truly uncomfortable discussion surrounding equity, it’s only because of the actors’ commitment that we accept hearing some truly heinous talking points.
It might seem like FastHorse is giving a giant middle finger to the theater industry and its racist legacies by staging a failed theater production. But I still think she has a steadfast commitment to creating something onstage that is “beautiful, and dramatic, and educational” as Jaxton states. Through the character of Caden, she fills the show with historical research, providing case after case of colonizers and massacres that occurred before the “regular Thanksgiving that we all know,” as Logan says. By watching racist white characters, audience members are encouraged to identify the fallacies and stereotypes about Native Americans that the characters spout with no self-awareness. The fact that FastHorse decided to write these topics into a play shows her investment in the theater form as a genre with educational and transformative possibilities.
Which makes FastHorse’s decision to not include any indigenous characters in her show, outside of Ty Defoe’s scenes, all the more baffling. FastHorse is working within a long tradition of playwrights and performers using outdated scripts and false pageantries to turn a white audience’s gaze back onto themselves. Throughout the 1990’s, artist Coco Fusco created many performances where she would portray an indigenous person in a cage, recreating the exhibitions that travelled through Europe and America in the 19th century. Her goal was to create a “reverse ethnography” of contemporary white audiences’ interactions with the satirical exhibit—to turn the “master’s tools” (as Audre Lorde puts it) of racist ethnography back on the masters themselves.
Since Fusco’s work, many Black playwrights have warped theater’s historical surveillance of Black bodies, creating strange and disturbing performances in which whiteness is put under the microscope. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Appropriate” (which had a 2018 Second Stage production), all of the white supremacist underpinnings of a white family in Arkansas are staged in a somewhat conventional family drama. White performative liberalism has been a recent target in many of these Black plays. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” shows how white audience members continue to fantasize about Blackness when it’s put onstage, and her show “We Are Proud to Present…” mimics “The Thanksgiving Play” by revealing six actors attempting to stage an educational presentation about an African genocide. Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” shows how well-intentioned white partners of Black Americans fail to understand their subjectivity, and his play “Yell: A Documentary of My Time Here” is a direct attack at Yale’s Playwriting MFA Program and the pervasive racism in academia.
But what sets apart Harris’s and Drury’s work—and to an extension, Jacobs-Jenkins’s work that is unafraid to put lynching and redface in front of its audience—is the presence of people of color onstage. By putting Black and brown actors on the stage where racist action and language is being confronted, they offer surrogates for audiences of color within the dramaturgy, allowing us a way into these frustrating worlds. In “The Thanksgiving Play,” there are no such surrogate characters, and instead I’m forced to listen to a racist rhetoric which I was already completely aware of before entering the theater or the Zoom room in the first place.
FastHorse is no stranger to indigenous community-based works of art. In 2020, she won a MacArthur Fellowship in part for her Cornerstone trilogy, which utilizes 100s of indigenous artists and audience members to create a show by and for the community. However, she’s explained that in order to have her work be read and seen by larger audiences, she’s had to make concessions regarding the inclusion of indigenous characters in her shows.
“People actually want to learn about indigenous issues, and I write plays that often have indigenous characters in them,” she stated in an interview for Playwrights Horizons. “But I’ve been told again and again that we can’t cast your play. It’s uncastable. There are no native actors! Which is untrue, but I get tired of fighting that fight to be perfectly honest. And I said fine, I’m going to create a play that still deals with these indigenous issues with all white-presenting people. And say, ‘Here, American theater. If you can’t cast this, you got a problem.’”
The thing is, regional American theaters all over the country have cast “The Thanksgiving Play” (it was one of the most produced plays of the 2019-20 season), and the industry still has a problem. It’s hard for me to place judgement on FastHorse’s choice to write a show with all white people. It’s as much an act of financial survival as it is a dramaturgical choice. But I think about all of the music videos made by Ty Defoe that are interspersed into “The Thanksgiving Play” and how much I would rather listen to them than the grating discourses of white people I have heard over and over again.
One day, I hope that American theater catches up to FastHorse and allows her to stage her indigeneity without appeasement or compromise. In the meantime, if I’m looking for pieces of art that engage in contemporary discourses around Native Americans with humor, I’ll turn to the internet-infused poetry of Tommy Pico, the novels of Tommy Orange, or the hyper-modern short stories of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. At least then I’ll be listening to indigenous voices unfiltered through white bodies.
Nathan Pugh can be reached out at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanpugh_3