UPDATE: The Thanksgiving Play is now available to stream only until 8 pm November 1, 2021. Tickets ($35) are available online.
The snark is laid on pretty thick in Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, a satire that explores the lunacy behind America’s ability to construct a wholesome family holiday out of genocide and land theft.
FastHorse also skewers the performative “wokeness” of white liberals whose best intentions are as flimsy as the construction-paper turkeys and headdresses American children make to celebrate the holiday.
Director Raymond O. Caldwell’s production for Olney Theatre Center taps deep into this vein of comedy, assembling a top-notch cast and design team into a show that entertains foremost while never letting us forget that beneath all the jokes lie hundreds of years of problematic history.
Logan (Megan Graves) is a high-school drama teacher embarking on a make-or-break project: creating a Thanksgiving play for the school district that simultaneously honors the Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on the holiday without getting her fired. Logan is a vegan who screams at the sight of cheese, snaps instead of claps, and frequently refers to the six weeks she worked as an actress in Los Angeles — which she pronounces the Spanish way. You get the picture: She’s woke as f*ck.
Logan pairs well with Jaxton (Parker Drown), her boyfriend in moments when they are not consciously decoupled. Jaxton is not at all threatened by the fact that Logan is the director of this project and totally OK with letting her take the lead. A local actor and a yoga enthusiast (his day job doesn’t count as part of his identity), Logan continually reminds us how sensitive he is to the politics of representation. He went by the pronoun “ze” for an entire year, performs at his local farmers market, and doesn’t mention Columbus Day in case it’s shameful to the Italian American in the room. Jaxton’s idea of romance is bringing Logan a water bottle “made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.”
To satisfy the terms of the various grants Logan has received for the project, she hires two additional people to help with the play: Caden (David Schlumpf), a third-grade teacher who passes out lollipops prolifically and arrives with a binder full of Native American history, and Alicia (Dani Stoller), a Native American actor who Logan hired based on her headshot to bring authenticity to the project.
It doesn’t take long for the audience to parse out that Alicia is not — at all — Native American. She arrives in sexy yoga pants, plastic water bottle in hand. (Hello, symbolism, no recycled glass for her.) But the do-gooders on stage are too flustered in the presence of a real live Native American to notice. Peppering her with questions about honoring her heritage, they fumble while Alicia makes pouty faces into her phone before admitting that she gets headshots as a variety of ethnicities to increase her chances of getting work. Looking “ethnic” got her cast as the third Jasmine understudy at Disneyland, after all.
While all the actors turn out entertaining performances, Dani Stoller is a laugh from start to finish. She dives headfirst into Alicia’s simplemindedness and provides a refreshing contrast to the belabored political correctness of everyone else on stage. “I’m not smart,” she says at one point. “I was tested.”
The rest of the play hinges on the characters realizing that none of them know a single Native American. How do you include the Native American view in a play without any Native American representation? The four scramble through an increasingly ridiculous series of attempts to stage a play honoring the very people who are absent.
Despite the serious nature of the subject, the play only wavers from comedy in a series of videos that play between scenes. Lifted from the social media pages of actual American educators (yes, you should be embarrassed now), the videos depict the very racist and biased version of Thanksgiving that many of us were exposed to in school. Songs including “Ten Little Indians” are pretty wince-inducing when you realize that generations of American children grew up with this as their only reference point to Native American culture. “For fun, try having students say ‘Injun’ instead of ‘Indian,’” one video ends. “My students loved it.” (Angela Miracle Gladue, Benairen Kane, and Jack Novak perform in these videos)
Milagros Ponce de León’s set design adds to the liveliness of the play. Sure we are in a public school classroom, but this room is anything but high-school drab. The linoleum floor pops in squares of red, blue, and yellow. The walls are plastered with posters depicting the typical high school thespian fare (i.e., plays by white men): Angels in America, Death of a Salesman, and of course, the Bard. Peeking through the classroom window, we see the turkey hand cutouts and Native American headdresses so many of us made in elementary school.
You won’t learn much about Native American life from this play, which is a shame since FastHorse (a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation) is America’s most esteemed Native American playwright. But this was intentional on her part. FastHorse has penned several plays featuring Native American characters only to be told by theaters that they couldn’t find the Native American actors to play those roles. So in a brilliant middle-finger move to the theater industry, FastHorse wrote a script that spoon-feeds modern American theater the content it excels at in a neat little package: Four white actors, one set, 100 minutes, no intermission. And her calculation has paid off. The Thanksgiving Play was one of the top ten most produced plays in the country prior to the pandemic according to American Theatre Magazine. Everyone and their mother is clamoring to produce this play.
DC audiences are now getting their chance to see it. And see it they should.
Running Time: 100 minutes, with no intermission.
The Thanksgiving Play runs through October 31, 2021, at Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets ($64, general; $59, under 17 and senior), call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or go online.
Health and Safety
Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required at all performances of The Thanksgiving Play. This production is not recommended for those under 12, but children attending a performance who are not yet eligible for the COVID vaccine must be masked and accompanied by a vaccinated adult. At this time, the theater does not accept proof of a recent negative COVID test in lieu of vaccination. Visit Health and Safety for more information.
SEE ALSO: An Interview with Playwright Larissa FastHorse by Patricia Mitchell