The spring season of Spotlight on Plays from Broadway’s Best Shows launches 8 PM ET March 25 with an all-star reading of The Thanksgiving Play, by recent MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ recipient Larissa FastHorse. The presentation stars Tony Award nominees Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) and Bobby Cannavale (Mauritius), and screen favorites Keanu Reeves (The Matrix) and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), under the helm of Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman (Violet).
The Spotlight on Plays events are live streamed on Stellar and available on-demand March 25-29. Proceeds benefit The Actors Fund.
The Thanksgiving Play made its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2018 before going on to appear on American Theatre’s list of most produced plays in 2019, making FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, the first Indigenous playwright to make the list.
In the play, a group of well-intentioned white teaching artists scramble to create an ambitious, "woke" Thanksgiving pageant that also celebrates Native American Heritage Month. FastHorse has rewritten her work so that the characters are creating their play via Zoom, hoping that they’ll get to perform it live in November. The interstitial Thanksgiving pageant scenes are designed, animated, and performed by multi-hyphenate Indigenous artist Ty Defoe (Straight White Men) and designer Katherine Freer (associate projection designer of The Lifespan of a Fact and The Band’s Visit). FastHorse and Defoe are co-founders of the consulting firm Indigenous Direction, who partnered with the 2020 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for the first ever land acknowledgment ceremony before the parade honoring the Wampanoag and Lenape people, first inhabitants of modern-day Massachusetts and Manhattan. (Watch it here.)
FastHorse says the play is about what she calls “performative wokeness.” As a theatre artist and a resident of liberal Santa Monica, California, she’s encountered many well-meaning people who seem to compete to show how “woke” they are. “It’s one of the most dangerous things I see, because it stops us from having any real conversation and any real dialogue. It stops us from being able to call out what's actually happening or to make mistakes and own them. It just stops anything from moving forward in a good way—that helps us all actually become better people, as opposed to trying to look like better people,” she says.
The play is often referred to as a satire, but FastHorse calls it “a comedy in a satire.” Satire, she says, “can sometimes feel like medicine.” When developing the play, she noticed two things were happening: First, she was learning a lot of true Thanksgiving history, creating the potential for a long educational piece (which she didn’t want). And second, she was writing a very dark satire about Thanksgiving and performative wokeness, which could start to feel mean. “The key was the comedy. It was finding the comedic things that make us all get to laugh together and make it safe for us to have this experience together,” she says.
She realized she had unlocked it when, during previews at Playwrights Horizons, she watched the entire audience laugh at a particular “unifying joke.” “It's just one cheap joke that anyone can laugh at. White folks, woke folks, non-woke folks, Native folks, Black folks, whoever. Everybody can laugh at this one joke,” she says. The company had done a lot of outreach to different BIPOC communities for audiences, so it was a very racially and age diverse audience. “I could see them looking at each other and enjoying that moment together. And that moment I knew I got it. That's when the play is working: when we can all laugh and have fun, but also start to question what we've been taught and what we believe and what we call truth. If we could do those two things together, that's perfect to me,” she says.
The play goes back and forth between pageant scenes (inspired by real school teachers’ Pinterest boards) and scenes in which the main characters are creating a new Thanksgiving play that, in their attempt to be “politically correct,” erases the Native narrative altogether. So, what’s the middle ground? What’s the right answer? “It’s reality and truth, right?” FastHorse says. “It’s acknowledging that we are all on stolen land and then starting to learn who those people are. Who are those people on whose land I'm standing and are they still here? And if not, why not? Where are they? What's happened to them?” Land acknowledgment and education should continue to reparations. “Everyone can give something back,” she says, “to start paying back some rent for the land…maybe it’s support, maybe it’s funding, maybe it’s raising awareness and uplifting the issues and the culture of the people whose land you’re on.”
Before the pandemic, FastHorse was working on realizing The D/N/Lakota Project—the third part of the Cornerstone Trilogy. The series of community-engaged productions was created in collaboration with Cornerstone Theater Company and Artistic Director Michael John Garcés, and with Indigenous people of U.S. lands. The D/N/Lakota Project would follow Urban Rez (with and about Native people of and/or living in the Los Angeles Basin), and Native Nation (a collaboration with the tribes in the Phoenix, Arizona, area).
“My playwriting career has two parallel tracks,” FastHorse says. One side, she explains, is the traditional Western theatre stage play, like The Thanksgiving Play. The other side are the community-centered productions of the Cornerstone Trilogy. “In American theatre, I fight to put one Native American character on stage,” she says. (The Thanksgiving Play was written in response to being told numerous times that her plays with Native American characters were impossible to cast, so she wrote a play about Native issues with no Native American characters—see cast photo above.) “In Arizona in Native Nation, we had 400 Native American artists over two weekends participate in these productions. I mean, 400. It's incredible."
Uniting those two facets of her work remains a goal and a challenge. "Most of American theatre is struggling with bringing together what's considered ‘a community work.’ But, this community has art built into their DNA. Art and spirituality are one thing, so they are professional artists. We're just taking professional artists and bringing them into a different medium, is all. I hope American theatre starts to see that. Soon. Let's make these incredible pieces together."