The little details set the scene right away in Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play: The character names Logan, Jaxton, and Caden–painstakingly gender-neutral, equally likely to be first or last names, seasoned with a dash of aspirational preppiness. The fashion choices (costumes by Lux Haac): Logan’s ensemble of soothing colors and natural fibers; the keffiyeh draped around Jaxton’s neck. The posters for avant-garde plays mixed in with Shakespeare on the wall of Riccardo Hernandez’s theater-classroom set (I spotted Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment, and Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is, among others–all odd choices for high school production). Jaxton’s gift to Logan of a recycled-glass mason jar purchased at the farmers market. (It symbolizes the artistic journey on which they are about to embark, Jaxton says: “We start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race then turn all that into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids.”) Even before Logan and Jaxton pointedly enunciate their pronouns in introducing themselves to Caden (she/her/hers for Logan and he/him/his for Jaxton, if anyone was wondering) you know where you are and who you’re with: artsy middle-class white theater folk, full of self-congratulation for their embrace of “post-post-racial” America.
Logan (Katie Finneran), a formerly aspiring actor who’s turned her frustrated ambitions to teaching and trying to bring Real Art to blinkered suburbanites, with distinctly mixed results (three hundred parents have signed a current petition to fire her in the wake of her student production of The Iceman Cometh), has compiled a series of grants to fund the creation of “something revolutionary in educational theater.” The company includes her partner, Jaxton (Scott Foley), a semi-professional actor/yoga dude (he has a day job, “but that’s not what’s important in the story of me”), and fellow teacher/not-so-secretly aspiring playwright Caden (Chris Sullivan), their duly assigned history specialist. And then there’s Alicia (D’Arcy Carden): in addition to the Race and Gender Equity in History Grant, the Excellence in Educational Theater Fellowship, a municipal arts grant, and the Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship, Logan’s been granted funds from a Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant specifically to hire a professional actor. She hired Alicia from Los Angeles as their “Native American compass.” (Alicia, as is quickly revealed, isn’t actually Native American, but one of her five headshots is; she’s completely comfortable with this outcome, as she is after all an actress, but Logan not so much.) The net result: four white people making a “culturally sensitive First Thanksgiving play for Native American Heritage Month.” Logan and Jaxton are initially horrified, but, with grant funds at stake, they make the decision to figure out how to celebrate Natives…without them.
It should be no surprise that this promptly goes (further) off the rails, in ways that by the time the play hits rock bottom have grown to involve Braveheart-esque makeup, conquistador-style armor, and more than a little good old-fashioned massacre. As FastHorse said in an interview with The New Yorker, “these are white folks, liberal folks, trying really hard to do everything right, and . . . getting everything wrong.”
And after a certain point, the characters’ self-interest starts to take over from even their good intentions: Logan wants to save her job and her grant money; she cares about not being called out for cultural appropriation but she’s perfectly content to rationalize her way into doing the play anyway. Jaxton wants to be taken seriously as an artist; Caden wants to hear his scripts read out loud by someone older than a third-grader; and Alicia wants to play the lead role she’s been contracted for and doesn’t much care what that role is.
Director Rachel Chavkin and her cast of gifted comic actors have layered FastHorse’s already funny script with brilliant physical business: D’Arcy Carden playing with the straw and foam in her latte. Katie Finneran turning an attempt at a sexy hair-flip into a full-body grimace. Scott Foley and Chris Sullivan diving into the mimed shucking and eating of corn with insane gusto, with Carden ever-so-slightly failing to get improv, always one beat behind. The laughs keep coming, but so does the recognition that the pre-post-racial America hasn’t really gone anywhere at all.
A series of filmed interstitials features children of different ages giving Thanksgiving-adjacent performances that make you cringe for a whole array of reasons: The blinkered earnestness of educational theater at all, yes, but also the specifics here. The excruciating length and howling stereotypes of a grade-school performance of “The Twelve Days of Thanksgiving.” The casual violence–and howling stereotypes–of a musical number in which turkeys, played by their classmates, are shot onstage. The bitter irony in Indigenous middle-schoolers doing a punk-rock version of “Home on the Range.” And finally, high-schoolers trying to do a presentation about “applying social responsibility and ethics to Thanksgiving” and getting shut down by their school system: “due to the potential for your fellow students to feel discomfort or guilt because of this presentation, it cannot be shared with the class.”
Tracy Letts’s The Minutes, which ran on Broadway in 2022, also builds comedy on white America’s tendency to cling to its origin stories and their unexamined racial violence, but in his Big Cherry, the town council members build not only their myths but their private local rituals on that violence. But where that play gives its presumptively mostly white Broadway audience a way to stand back and be horrified by the actions of the bumbling small-town bureaucrats who populate it, The Thanksgiving Play keeps poking at our sensibilities.
Tongue firmly in cheek, FastHorse has constructed the perfect mirror for the archetypal American theater goer (and for that matter theater maker): white, liberal, concerned about oppression and erasure in American history and all the issues raised by 2020’s We See You WAT manifesto…but not quite concerned enough to actually step aside. (While the creative team, outside of director Rachel Chavkin–who, FastHorse says, was consciously intended to be one who “understood what it was like to be a ‘well-meaning liberal white person,’ is composed of artists of color, that’s not what we see onstage.) I worry that the ultimate satire is a little too meta, putting the audience in the position of patting ourselves on the back for being able to laugh at our own pieties and feeling kind of okay with the idea that doing nothing makes us part of the solution. Wash away the stage blood and get on with our lives.
And yet: The Thanksgiving Play is the first play by a Native American writer to be produced on Broadway. FastHorse constructed it precisely to be excessively producible, after producers called earlier plays of hers “uncastable”: Ninety minutes. Four actors. Single set. An all-white cast; no Native characters. It was one of the most produced plays in America last year. FastHorse knows what she’s doing in sugar-coating the message, of course–but it might go down a little too easy.