In 'Thanksgiving Play,' the pageantry of 'well-meaning' white people
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In 'Thanksgiving Play,' the pageantry of 'well-meaning' white people
Larissa FastHorse instructs children dressed as turkeys on their choreography during the making of short films for her play “The Thanksgiving Play,” at St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf in New York, Feb. 5, 2023. In the play, the films are shown between scenes. Justin J Wee/The New York Times

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK, NY.- As Larissa FastHorse worked with the Broadway cast of “The Thanksgiving Play,” which centers on four white people trying to put on a “culturally sensitive” holiday production, one of the actors, Katie Finneran, spoke up in a rehearsal with a suggestion: Perhaps she could drop a swear word during one of her more exasperated lines?

“I’m the drama teacher!” Finneran’s character exclaims as her plan to make a socially progressive elementary school play begins to fall apart.

FastHorse politely declined. From the work’s conception in 2015, she had intended it to be curse-free, in the hopes of finally having a widely produced play. Her other work — including the play “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” — involved Native American characters, leading producers to call them “uncastable.”

So, FastHorse wrote one with white characters, while still focusing on contemporary Indigenous issues. If the play were littered with profanity, FastHorse decided, some theater producers or audiences might reject it.

“Being from the Midwest, there are people who won’t go to a play with swearing,” said FastHorse, who grew up in South Dakota. “And those are some of the people I want to reach.”

Her gambit worked. After “The Thanksgiving Play” had its off-Broadway debut in 2018, it became one of the most produced plays in America, as it found homes at universities, community theaters and regional groups. In 2021, a streamed version starred Keanu Reeves, Bobby Cannavale, Alia Shawkat and Heidi Schreck as the quartet of bumbling thespians. FastHorse has even heard from people who have read the play aloud on Thanksgiving with their families, turning the activity into a yearly tradition.

Now, “The Thanksgiving Play” has made it to Broadway, where it is in previews and is set to open April 20 at the Helen Hayes Theater. This production, directed by Rachel Chavkin, includes a multimedia element not seen in the off-Broadway version: a series of filmed scenes, featuring children who act out cutesy Thanksgiving pageantry — think feathers and pilgrim attire — while also giving voice to some of the casual brutality with which white American culture has long portrayed Native Americans.

FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, will be among the first Native American artists to have their work on Broadway. It’s the kind of achievement that the theater world likes to applaud, while perhaps also cringing at the fact that it has taken this long.

The play’s skewering of the performative progressivism of the white theater world adds another layer. Its central characters tie themselves in knots trying to stage a play for Native American Heritage Month without actually including any Native Americans. They fret over fulfilling the requirements of a grant, sweat over gender stereotypes, debate the merits of colorblind casting and employ terminology like “white allies” and “emotional space.” To make this production even more of the moment, FastHorse added an exchange about pronoun sharing and references to the “post-BLM” world.

“Even though it does openly poke fun at a lot of the folks that I work with who are more on the liberal side,” FastHorse said, “I was really trying to make it so everybody can kind of see each other.”

The play’s avatar for the more conservative audience members is a newcomer named Alicia (played by D’Arcy Carden), a hired actress who is unfamiliar with the language of social progressivism.

What distinguishes Alicia is a complete lack of concern about so-called political correctness. The others are eager to prove themselves as “enlightened white allies,” including the loudly vegan drama teacher (Finneran), her yoga-loving boyfriend (Scott Foley) and a know-it-all history teacher (Chris Sullivan) who likes to preface his insights with, “Actually …”

On Broadway, as in many industries, the anxiety around screwing up was magnified three years ago, after the murder of George Floyd prompted a wider reflection on racism and inequity in myriad industries and fields. In the theater world, that reevaluation led to the publication of “We See You, White American Theater,” a document calling for an elevation of works by playwrights of color and more people of color in leadership positions, among other demands.

So when FastHorse asked Chavkin, the Tony-winning director of “Hadestown,” to oversee the Broadway run of “The Thanksgiving Play,” Chavkin first wanted to make sure the playwright wouldn’t prefer a person of color to direct.

FastHorse said she wanted someone on the creative team — otherwise made up of people of color — who understood what it was like to be a “well-meaning liberal white person.” In other words, someone who has felt the urge to say all the right things and appear as progressive as possible.

“She said, ‘I need your expertise,’” Chavkin recalled.

FastHorse, 51, has had a winding path to Broadway. She started out as a professional ballet dancer, before an injury led her toward film and television. After she became exhausted by that industry’s handling of Native American issues, she switched to theater, where she observed that people tended to be more open to doing the work necessary for sensitive and accurate portrayals, she said.

Around the same time that she started writing “The Thanksgiving Play,” she co-founded a consulting firm called Indigenous Direction that began advising arts groups on Indigenous issues.

Along with Ty Defoe, an artist from the Oneida and Ojibwe Nations, FastHorse began working with an important company in Thanksgiving — Macy’s — on a question not unlike the one at the center of her play: How could they make it so the Thanksgiving Day Parade, a celebration of colonialism to many Native Americans, was not causing continued harm?

Under FastHorse and Defoe’s counsel, the 2020 parade included a Wampanoag blessing and a land acknowledgment recognizing that Manhattan is part of Lenapehoking, or the land of the Lenape people. Last year’s parade added a float designed in consultation with Wampanoag artists and clan mothers.

Macy’s also agreed to make a cosmetic — but, to the consultants, important — change: Tom Turkey lost his belt-buckle hat, and in its place appeared a top hat. He is no longer portrayed as a pilgrim, Defoe said, but a “show turkey.” A Macy’s spokeswoman said the change was part of their “re-evaluation of potentially upsetting symbolism.”

On Broadway, it is perhaps unsurprising that the process of staging a play about white people discussing Native American representation can start to mimic the script itself.

“We’ve had a lot of questions: a lot of questions about Larissa’s life experiences, a lot of questions about what she wants to accomplish,” said Sullivan, who portrays the history teacher. “I’m coming awake to all of the things I didn’t even realize I needed to be thinking about.”

There tends to be some guilt, FastHorse said, in the rehearsal room over a lack of knowledge of the horrors perpetrated against Native Americans, including the Pequot Massacre in 1637, which figures prominently in the show.

Though it is first and foremost a comedy, the play does not shy away from violent imagery and rhetoric, even when the actors involved are children.

To film the videos, which are shown between the live scenes, Chavkin and FastHorse gathered two dozen children and teenagers in February inside the auditorium of the St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf in Brooklyn. Some were dressed as flamboyant turkeys and others wore stereotypical pilgrim costumes, with belt-buckle hats and wooden guns.

The vision, Chavkin said, was to chart the course of how young people are taught to understand Thanksgiving, from 5- and 6-year-olds singing a silly song involving pumpkin patches and teepees, to high schoolers discussing the 1997 police crackdown on a march of Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

“You watch young people move through the educational system,” Chavkin said. “What we’re trying to do over the course of these four films is make that arc really palpable, starting with sort of obediently following a very nationalist, colonialist narrative.”

In one scene, four Indigenous children, some flown in from across the country, perform a punk rock version of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” complete with a dummy of Theodore Roosevelt with a plastic saber stuck in him.

Of course, if you’re asking 12-year-olds to sing part of “Ten Little Indians,” a 19th-century nursery rhyme that includes disturbing lyrics involving the death of Native Americans, you need to explain why.

FastHorse told the children before filming that she had found these lyrics (including the couplet, “Two little Indians foolin’ with a gun …. One shot t’other and then there was one”) in a student activity posted online for teachers.

“We want adults to be aware that this isn’t OK,” FastHorse told them. “The song actually exists and is still being put out into the world.”

The young actors nodded that they understood. For them, as elementary and middle school students in New York City, Thanksgiving pageants are an unfamiliar relic of history. These days, they said, their teachers mostly avoid the subject.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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