By David Walters
Playwrights Horizons is currently presenting The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse, doing, in a way, the very thing the play is mocking. This month as we look at our early American history and focus on our past cultural atrocities to indigenous peoples, this choice feels to me as politically incorrect as the characters the play mocks (or am I, like the characters, appropriating too much?).
The play is a straight forward satire on the black hole of death of being too politically correct.
Four white people: A school drama teacher, Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), her yoga/street performer boyfriend, Jaxton (Greg Keller), an elementary school history teacher, Caden (Jeffrey Bean), and a hired LA actress, Alicia (Margo Seibert) (hired because they thought she was Native American, but since it’s politically incorrect to ask, they find out only afterwards that she only plays indigenous people because of her look), have to come up with a 45-minute play to present for a Thanksgiving pageant for a grade school. Ultimately, they fail and come up with presenting a stage filled with nothing to represent the voices that are not there to be represented.
These hyper-politically correct white people showcase how difficult and ultimately impossible it is to be correct and how focusing on being correct, only makes it worse. The lack of casting of indigenous actors, failed attempts to humanely represent indigenous peoples, and the insane assumptions we have of Native Americans as one people and not as belonging to specific tribes are roadblocks in truthfully telling the Thanksgiving story, as to tell it truthfully, it would be covered in blood.
As scene breaks, there are several moments throughout the play when a pin-light highlights one of the actors who then steps out to share with the audience through song, the insanity of our history in this country with our portrayal of Thanksgiving and where it originally came from.
The back story on this play mirrors the content. Not being able to get her plays produced, as it required casting Native American actors and the theaters interested in producing her work don’t have access to that talent pool (if indeed it does exist at all), Ms. FastHorce charged herself with the exercise of writing a play about the Native American experience without having to cast Native Americans. She succeeded.
Ultimately, my job is to view this as a piece of theater, not a positive or negative political or personal statement of the author’s backstory and the history of where the material is coming from, and then tell you if there is anything to gain by spending your money and your time in what it has to give back to you. In its current state, I would have to say no.
Not that it’s bad in any way. The actors all do very credible jobs, the directing is competent and the lighting, set and costumes are all up to par. The writing is clear, there are witty moments, funny situations and thought-provoking statements, BUT (and I made it a big but) this is not something for a New York audience compared to what the play has to compete against. Ms. FastHorse says in her forward notes in the program, “…the reality of what I have experienced as an Indigenous person… people don’t believe it.” This play needs to dance more with the unbelievable.
In closing, let me say this though, as a white male sitting in a packed audience of other white people watching this play, I did find myself wishing I had a Native American friend I could have brought with me to give a different perspective than my own.
The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse; directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; cast includes Jennifer Bareilles as Logan; Jeffrey Bean as Caden; Greg Keller as Jaxton; and Margo Seibert as Alicia.
The creative team includes Wilson Chin (scenic design), Tilly Grimes (costume design), Isabella Byrd (lighting design), Mikaal Sulaiman (sound design), and Katie Ailinger (Production Stage Manager).
Performance Schedule and Ticketing
Performances of The Thanksgiving Play take place October 12 – November 25: Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm.