We’re in the right month, but The Thanksgiving Play doesn’t even come close to celebrating Thanksgiving. Instead, it skewers the tradition of annual elementary school pageants that have historically celebrated a feast of friendship while ignoring colonial slaughter.
Written by Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota Nation), the comedy features four White characters and is steeped in the politically correct language of White liberalism and people trying to “do better.” It’s a farce about actors on the educational theater circuit of school assemblies who plan to write a new Thanksgiving play through the magic of improv.
The first production of the play helmed by Native American directors is now being performed at the Santa Fe Playhouse, co-directed by Morningstar Angeline (Navajo, Chippewa Cree, Shoshone, Blackfeet, Latinx) and Natalie Benally (Navajo, Zuni). The production runs about two hours with no intermission. In a preview performance on Friday, Oct. 29, the cast stumbled a bit with timing and pacing in the first act but found their groove by the second.
The set is an early-childhood classroom with a chalkboard, a few child-size tables, and a small stage with a red velvet curtain. The play opens with a casually dressed redhead, Logan (Kate Bergeron), listening to a Thanksgiving-themed counting song for preschool-age children. She’s preparing for rehearsal, awaiting the arrival of the cast: Her boyfriend, Jaxton (Hunter Hans Stiebel), a street performer and “yoga guy” in a T-shirt that says “Difference Maker”; Caden Green (Patrick MacDonald), a history buff and aspiring playwright; and Alicia (Jess Haring), an actor from Los Angeles that Logan hired through a grant to support Native American History Month. They are under the impression that Alicia is Native American, and they need her voice to lend authenticity to their process. She may or may not be Native, but she wears plenty of turquoise. Logan, Jaxton, and Caden keep turning to her for insight and wisdom.
Logan and Jaxton are supremely “woke” and terrified of offending anyone or causing controversy. There’s a lot of dialogue exhibiting the stressed-out politically correct silliness of stereotypical White liberals, which will be familiar to anyone who spends time on social media.
The play wants you to question who you are laughing at and whether language about “creating space for Native voices” is meaningful if you are not actually listening to Native voices. Cue increasingly silly improv scenarios in which the troupe tries to highlight a Native perspective using absurd historical metaphors and, in one version, empty space and silence. But FastHorse shows that their motives are self-serving. We see that their benign racism is still racism, even as they desperately parade their ideas about “allyship.”
The Thanksgiving Play is confrontational theater. By design, the viewing experience depends on the baggage each audience member brings with them. For instance, what Thanksgiving plays did you participate in as a child? The White characters are the butt of every joke, which will push buttons for anyone who sees themselves on stage — and make you question whether your own efforts at “diversity and inclusion” are mostly talk. But the characters in The Thanksgiving Play aren’t mere cutouts. Each has an arc of personal creative discovery.
And lest you think the basic scenario is preposterous, the actors recreate vignettes from real school Thanksgiving performances that FastHorse found on YouTube. They range from a racist puppet show to an excruciatingly mockable moment of experimental theater.
Haring is a comedic standout as Alicia. She flips her hair and rolls her big, empty eyes while insisting that “playing Native” is simply a matter of pretending to be something she’s not. As she continually reminds Logan, this is her job as an actress. Stiebel is ideal as the community theater scenery chewer who takes on a stunning range of culturally inappropriate accents during improv exercises. MacDonald gives Caden true pathos as a playwright whose work has only been performed by 9-year-olds, and Bergeron brings nuance and subtlety to Logan’s crushing White guilt and sense of patriarchal oppression.
The directors’ farcical approach to the material makes an effective, borderline-slapstick political point about the futility of Logan’s endeavor. Unfortunately, my ability to appreciate the comedy was marred by an overly enthusiastic audience member who laughed loudly after almost every line. It made me long for a more understated approach on stage. It would be fascinating to see a cast play it straight and let the comedy arise more naturally from the dialogue. Thanksgiving plays happen annually, so perhaps we’ll see another interpretation next year.