Review by Brittany Crowell

Oh white people – you just don’t seem to get it, do you?  Larissa FastHorse quietly jabs in her new piece opening on Broadway this spring.  The Thanksgiving Play is a comedic romp, one expertly crafted in a way that had even the white-skinned, white-haired audience of the Great White Way in hysterics for the full 85-minute plea that white folks leave the narratives of oppression to the oppressed.  Step back.  Listen.  Learn.

FastHorse, of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, is the first known Native American woman playwright to have a play on Broadway, and it’s no mistake that the piece, directed by Tony-winning Rachel Chavkin, stars four white actors.  “I was being told my plays were un-castable because they had Native American characters in them,” FastHorse said in a recent interview to Variety. “I said: Okay, fine, American theater. I’m going to continue to tell Indigenous contemporary issues and stories but I’m going to do it with four white-presenting people in one room.”  The result? In 2019, “The Thanksgiving Play” was one of the top 10 produced plays in the United States, and now in 2023, it has opened on Broadway.

The piece follows Logan, a teacher who is close to probation for her age and content-inappropriate middle-school theater productions (next up, Hedda Gabbler).  She has a petition out against her and a lot leaning on her upcoming production, where she has promised to devise and perform a Thanksgiving play for the children.  Logan (a white woman) has received grant funding from Native American heritage month & race and gender equity organizations and seeks to write a piece that honors the granting organizations and wins back the favor of the PTA.  Played by Broadway alum, Katie Finneran, Logan is frenetic and earnest, often losing herself in the devising process and struggling to contend with the weight of creating a responsible production.

Logan’s partner is Jaxton (Scott Foley), a cis, white, heterosexual man who is not afraid to lecture his colleagues on social issues. His “woke-ness” appears more self-satisfying than well-intentioned and leads to big faults in both his anti-racist practices and his relationship.

Then there is the enthusiastic (though inexperienced) Caden, played with vigor and enthusiasm by “This is Us’” star Chris Sullivan, who spends hours researching historical events in the library and works at the local elementary school, where he casts students in readings of his historical plays.

And finally, there is the ethnically ambiguous actress, Alicia, who Logan has brought onto the team to serve as a consultant on all things Native as well as perform the Native role in the piece.  Alicia’s charm and simple-mindedness is portrayed by a fabulous D’Arcy Carden, who previously played Janet in “The Good Place” and brings much of the humor to the piece.

As this pale, motley crew attempts to craft a socially conscious and inoffensive play about Thanksgiving, they end up falling into all of the pitfalls of white theater-makers and “woke” creatives everywhere: tokenizing, erasing, sexualizing, etc.  No matter what they try, they just can’t seem to get it right.

The scenic environment by Riccardo Hernandez will bring you back to your middle school days: full of inspirational posters, funny drama-kid quotes, and collaborative bulletin boards.  Jeanette-Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting brings the brightness of classroom fluorescents and highlights some of the more reality-bending moments of the play along with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design and David Bengali’s visuals of the implicated children on the various screens in the room, reminding us who the audience for this piece really is as they witness the devisees chaotically ravaging the space (and Lux Haac’s simple yet poignant costume design) in an effort to represent both sides of the story.

The Thanksgiving Play is genius in how it turns on itself and has stood upon the very structures that oppressed it to find its wide success.  I recommend that you watch it, while I am personally even more excited to see FastHorse’s upcoming work.  As she told Variety:  “My next five plays this year are all with Native characters. That was something I wasn’t able to achieve before I did this play.”

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY – by Larissa FastHorse; directed by Rachel Chavkin

FEATURING – D’Arcy Carden (Alicia); Katie Finneran (Logan); Scott Foley (Jaxton); Chris Sullivan (Caden)

Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez; costume design by Lux Haac; lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound design by Mikaal Sulaman; projection and video design by David Bengali; hair and makeup design by Brittany Hartman.  Produced by 2nd Stage: Carike Rothman, president and artistic director; Lisa Lawer Post, interim executive director.  At the Helen Hayes Theater (240 W 44th Street).