As Winston Churchill famously said, “History is written by the victors,” while the voices of those brutally conquered too often remain silenced. Offering the historically unheard perspective of the Indigenous people of America – instead of the ubiquitous accounts of straight white men – is the mission of a “woke” group of four adults determined to put on a self-devised politically correct presentation of America’s first Thanksgiving for an elementary school’s holiday pageant in the hilarious Broadway debut of The Thanksgiving Play, presented by Second Stage Theater for a limited engagement at the Hayes.
Written by California-based MacArthur Fellow Larissa FastHorse of the Sicangu Lakota Nation (also making her groundbreaking Broadway debut), the razor-sharp four-hander, which had its Off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2018, is set in a typical classroom (scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez), where Logan, a drama teacher (who is very dramatic about her enlightened beliefs), is meeting for the first rehearsal session with the three others she recruited. Already on shaky ground with the school Board for her last age-inappropriate student play (The Iceman Cometh!), she is equally concerned about adhering to the strictures of the Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant she received to fund the new titular work she’s creating and directing.
Logan’s chosen team (whom she introduces to each other with both their names and pronouns) consists of her partner Jaxton, a Yoga devotee and street-corner actor, who is as obsessively PC as Logan (though he does upset her by eating non-vegan cheese); Caden, a nerdy elementary-school history teacher, aspiring writer, and avid researcher, dedicated to establishing his reputation by setting the record straight (and giving his co-devisers an illustrated lecture on the long 4000-year pre-Plymouth history of the harvest festival that is irrelevant to the setting of their play); and Alicia, a ditzy sexy actress from LA, hired to provide a non-white perspective under the mistaken assumption that she’s Native American because she’s wearing a turquoise necklace in one of her headshots (they eventually find out that she’s actually of English and French descent; “We’re actors. We act. That’s the job,” she notes). So now they’re back to the usual all-white interpretation of Thanksgiving, which they struggle to create without offending current liberal ideals.
Rachel Chavkin directs with an eye on FastHorse’s relentless satirical laughs generated by the parodic characters’ spot-on language, well-intentioned but ridiculously cringeworthy observations, and desperate efforts to create an accurate and inclusive 45-minute play for kids that checks off all the boxes of heightened social awareness. When it all goes very wrong, they battle about the appropriate content, their true underlying thoughts and behavior crack the veneer of their self-consciously assumed attitudes, and they’re back to square one on how four white people can possibly represent the Indigenous side of the Thanksgiving story.
A top-notch cast – Katie Finneran as Logan, Scott Foley as Jaxton, Chris Sullivan as Caden, and D’Arcy Carden as Alicia – fully embraces the lampooned characters and their insistence on being woke to the point of exhaustion, or, in the case of Alicia, completely self-absorbed, unaware, and not too bright (she knows she’s not smart because she “was tested”). They all deliver the non-stop laughs without missing a beat, reciting the familiar PC paradigms and keeping the audience howling throughout the performance I attended.
But along with the over-the-top comical take on our current social attitudes come some shocking scenes that graphically illustrate the gravity of the historical tragedy and the seriousness of the theme (including decapitated heads and blood splatter), as do a series of interstitial videos on a large downstage projection screen of school kids of different ages and ethnicities performing songs in their own Thanksgiving pageants (projection and video design by David Bengali). They’re adorable and funny at first, then disturbing and offensive in the questionable information and traditional clichés they’re learning and repeating under the instructions of their mainstream teachers.
Costumes by Lux Haac and hair and make-up by Brittany Hartman define the characters, their transformations, and assumed roles in their play-in-development; Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound enhance the narrative and shifting tone. In its rapid-fire 90 minutes, The Thanksgiving Play will have you laughing loudly and leave you thinking about how to address the injustices and the one-sided history of our country. Go and see for yourself what Logan finally decides would be her best approach.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
The Thanksgiving Play plays through Sunday, June 11, 2023, at Second Stage Theater, performing at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $89-169, including fees), go online. Masks are required at Wednesday matinee performances.