He Says: Not Your Average Grade School Thanksgiving Play
From the moment I arrived into the smaller upstairs Playwrights Horizons Theatre, I became immediately aware that everywhere you look there is signage and information that speaks loudly about the quiet indigenous voices of our country. It’s a telling demonstration, and a direct correlation to the telling of a satirical play called The Thanksgiving Play, I prepared myself, like I do for a good tasting feast, for some seriously yummy commentary on the crazy dynamic that exists in American culture around a completely fabricated event that makes Americans feel all warm and fuzzy on a late Thursday in November, but leaves out the horrific genocide that truly exists for the Native American population. It’s a topical and timely comedy, brought forth by PEN USA Literary Award for Drama-winning playwright Larissa FastHorse (What Would Crazy Horse Do?), that starts out with a cartoonish pageant that I’m sure registers with most American who were force-fed this created story when they were young school children. The pilgrims and a turkey stand side by side, singing a happy song, almost hypnotically repetitive in nature, about the joy and fun of the Thanksgiving dinner and holiday. It’s ridiculous, absurd, and delightful, all layered up together, with a dash of cranberry sauce, in an uncomfortable sandwich of American culture run amuck. These are the moments that last, children songs smothered in the blood of turkeys slaughtered, and ”Indians’ marginalized.
Now, truth be told, I am not an American, but a Canadian living in NYC, brought up on television imagery streamed in on, what my mother always says, “just a regular Thursday in November“. It seemed quaint and commerce driven to us socially minded Canadians who already have had our harvest feast back on Canadian Thanksgiving in October, oddly enough on the same day as American Columbus Day. I always felt a bit gypped, to be honest, as our holiday was on a Monday, and we always felt rushed to get back to college or to our day jobs the very next day, while Americans basically got to enjoy a four-day holiday that started with a feast, not ending with one. It just didn’t seem fair. But the one good thing for this Canadian boy, was that it didn’t feel like the holiday was marinated in a completely false narrative, one that even I knew deep down in his hungry turkey-lovin’ heart had nothing to do with reality.
The other thing I’ll come clean about is that, besides being an immigrant, I am also a card-carrying Status North American Indigenous person of the Mohawk tribe. My grandmother was Mohawk and my grandfather was Iroquois, making my mother (who was born and raised on the Tuscarora reservation), my sister, and myself, Mohawk, following the maternal lineage, as they do. With that knowledge running through my ‘Status Indian” blood, Thanksgiving always was an odd celebration of the glorious family unit and a history of domination and destruction of ‘my people’. I will admit, that I did enjoy the tradition of the family gathering around a table for a feast, especially when I carved out a family of magnificent misfits and fabulous friends here in NYC, but the story that was stuffed into that giant turkey always tasted a bit foul. So reading about FastHorse who grew up in South Dakota and is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation, I was joyously curious with what she was going to bring to her table; was it going to be a real and true retelling (doubtful) or something a bit more abstract and absurdist. And I wasn’t going to be disappointed with her serving. It still needs some polishing, and a few more minutes in the oven to be truly cooked to perfection, but it does taste of sumptuous satire even when under-cooked.
With this world premier of The Thanksgiving Play, as directed with comic sharpness and style by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, Present Laughter), some well-intentioned white teaching artists try with all their might to create a story that would simultaneously honor Native American Heritage Month and quell white privilege guilt and shame, all for the sake of a grade school audience, although also, deep down, a bit for their own politically righteous hearts. It’s a twisted ridiculous set-up as the neurotic and desperate Logan, played with great spirit and energy by Jennifer Bareilles (THML’s Trial), dons the guise of a high school drama teacher and the dedicated director of this Thanksgiving grade school pageant, trying so hard along with her boyfriend and fellow politically correct addict, Jaxton, played magnificently with childlike wonder by Greg Keller (Vineyard’s The Amateurs), to roast this communal turkey of an idea in hopes to elevate the tradition far up and beyond any others. Those others, are meticulously and hilariously paraded before us with glee and an inventive puppet pageant by costume designer Tilly Grimes (PR’s The Government Inspector) ladling it on thick and deviously delicious, striking hard at the school system’s deception with delight. There’s even a rap moment that destroys all with its brilliance. Definitely something not to be missed on your November 22nd playlist this year.
With an open-hearted embrace of collaboration and a sharing of ideas through improv, Logan brings in an elementary school history teacher named Caden, beautifully played by the magnificently funny Jeffrey Bean (Broadway’s Bells Are Ringing) who has secretly and desperately dreamed of writing a real play, a play rich in historical content like mashed potatoes drenched in gravy, adding to the weight and importance of a tradition out of tune with reality. His ideas are grand, historically accurate, wildly interesting, and completely out of tune with the more lofty ambitions of Logan. Taking grants from every topical arena she can find, Logan wants to infuse this project with cutting-edge privilege checking, playing homage to the Native American experience that has always been left out of the drama. She hires what she believes to be a Native American movie actress from L.A., Alicia, played brilliantly vague by the wondrous Margo Seibert (Broadway’s In Transit), with hopes and dreams of changing the traditional tale all for the children. Basking in her own scattered self-importance that needs a whole lot of attention and constant vegan basting, she’s wildly off target, creating chaos and disaster all around, flying hard into cacophony of ideas and finding nothing to grab hold of. Which she does with relish.
It’s not surprising, that with all these kooks, I mean cooks in the kitchen, this feast will go wildly off course, deliciously devouring one another in their attempt to be truthful and correct in a way that is a specific commentary on white-liberalism in the theatre world. It’s smart in its nothingness, and its wicked in its worldliness, but in some ways, as the chefs start to collide like super overcooked politically-correct pack of Marx Brothers impersonators, the point and the finale get a bit lost in the preparation. Their timing and performances are spot on, so is the set design by Wilson Chin (Ma-Yi/Public’s Teenage Dick), distinct lighting by Isabella Byrd (NYTW’s The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire) and solid sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman (PR’s Rape of the Sabine Women), but in the last third of this ninety minute comedy, The Thanksgiving Play looses some flavor and focus. It’s definitely cutting and edgy, smothered in an absurdist concoction of wit and demented humor, but like the play Logan and team are trying to create in the end, The Thanksgiving Play fails to live up to the high hoped desire of the plan. In the words of FastHorse: “this constant dance of not wanting to offend and not wanting to upset and trying to do everything right—it’s this constant moving target that has no logic to it” and somewhere in this very fun night at the theatre, the point never makes it completely to the table.