How Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play Lays the Groundwork for Native Artists Like Me
It’s 3 June 2023. I see the Helen Hayes Theater marquee looming in the distance, and tears immediately come to my eyes. It reads:
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY
By Larissa FastHorse
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
I take pictures of the writing on the doors of the theatre, which describes Larissa FastHorse’s journey to become the first known female Indigenous playwright on Broadway. I take a selfie next to her picture, my sweaty, tear-streaked face beaming next to hers. Even though I have never met FastHorse personally, I like to think that she’s there with me in spirit, as a fellow female Indigenous theatremaker from a small midwestern town.
I make my way to my seat. I wait for the show to begin, thinking back to when my favorite theatre professor first gave me The Thanksgiving Play to read in March 2022. The play is set in a high school drama classroom “somewhere that isn’t LA.” Four performatively woke white liberals try to devise a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving play that highlights the Native American experience. Yet as the characters exchange pronouns and recount stories about their origins, it is revealed that the Native American actress from Los Angeles who was hired to bring a Native presence into the devising room is not, in fact, Native American.
I intended to direct The Thanksgiving Play for my senior honors project and bring an Indigenous playwright, director, and stage manager (my sister eagerly and lovingly wanted to support me as the stage manager for this production) to my college. I desperately wanted to bring a Native American voice to my small college because opportunities were never available for my sister and I to act in plays that featured Indigenous characters. I went to a small liberal arts college nestled in a primarily white, conservative town surrounded by corn fields. The students surrounding me at college were reflective of the town itself; diversity was lacking in both the theatre department and the student population as a whole. So, when I first read FastHorse’s satirical comedy in March 2022, I was drawn to it because its cast of four white characters meant that I could direct it at my college.
FastHorse’s status as the first known Indigenous playwright on Broadway inspires other Indigenous artists like me to envision their own names on a Broadway theatre marquee.
Those dreams of directing The Thanksgiving Play at my college were crushed when its Broadway debut was announced in June 2022. My professor explained to me that a Broadway run meant that producing rights were limited. However, while I was on a summer study abroad trip later that month, the same professor emailed me with the news that the rights to produce FastHorse’s play were secured. Being one of my biggest supporters, he advocated on my behalf to the play’s publisher, and they agreed to let me direct it as an emerging Indigenous director.
That green light sent me into the preparation for the project. At the first design meeting in September 2022, I shared a bit about my Native American heritage as a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa Nation in Hayward, Wisconsin; my personal journey with the play; my vision for bringing it to life; and how I wanted to achieve that vision through the designers’ work. My intention was to utilize FastHorse’s carefully crafted comedy and the play’s shocking racist interludes to make the audience think about their preconceived notions about Indigenous people and analyze what they were taught in school about the first Thanksgiving. Featured in what I call the “racist intermezzi” are elementary school Thanksgiving songs like the “The Twelve Days of Thanksgiving” (sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”), in which the characters sing about the “teepees” and “cornucopias” that the Natives gave to the pilgrims. While some productions choose to have the actors act out these interludes, I brought on a projection designer who filmed these scenes with puppets and projected them onto the whiteboard in the classroom onstage. I found this element of the play to be the most effective step toward audience members recognizing that what they thought they knew about Thanksgiving and Native Americans was not accurate.
Now, sitting in the Helen Hayes Theater, I wonder how Tony Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin will approach the text differently from a twenty-one-year old college theatre student with a budget of zero dollars and one year of directing experience. I think of how proud I am to be sitting where I am, able to reflect on the path behind me as an Indigenous artist and the hopeful journey ahead. FastHorse’s status as the first known Indigenous woman playwright on Broadway inspires other Indigenous artists like me to envision their own names on a Broadway theatre marquee.
With only a few minutes left until the show begins, my thoughts shift to a picture that FastHorse posted on Instagram before her Broadway debut. In the picture, she is in front of the same marquee I just passed under, surrounded by her star-studded cast: D’Arcy Carden (Alicia), Chris Sullivan (Caden), Katie Finneran (Logan), and Jaxton (Scott Foley). In the caption, @larissafasthorse wrote the following:
I said a lot of years ago, “I want to be the first known Native American woman playwright on Broadway.” I am. Don’t be afraid to speak your dreams. Don’t be afraid to dream big. It’s OK to want big things. It’s OK to achieve them. Plenty of folks will try to pull you down as soon as you start to achieve things. Find the folks that want you to fly.
The play begins, and the audience is greeted by one of the racist intermezzo. This creative team and I had the same idea to stage these as projections, but the Broadway team had recorded child actors performing the songs instead of puppets. The audience learns (via text before the song starts) that “The Twelve Days of Thanksgiving” is from an official website for teachers; it is meant to be used to teach about the first Thanksgiving. In a user comment from the website that FastHorse incorporates into the play, a teacher encourages their colleagues to divide students into groups of “Indians” and “Pilgrims” so the Indians can practice sharing. This opening scene sets the satirical tone for the rest of play.
After the projector screen rises, the audience is swept into the world of the play. Logan, played by Broadway veteran Katie Finneran, is the director of the devised process who has a three-hundred-parent petition to fire her as the school’s drama teacher. This is her last chance to save her job and reputation. Her boyfriend, the yoga-lover/vegan ally/farmer’s market actor Jaxton, played by Scott Foley, is eager to continue his “professional” career in the Thanksgiving show that they are devising. This time, he hopes, he will be paid with something other than coins in a coffee can. The effortlessly hilarious Chris Sullivan plays Caden, an elementary school teacher and aspiring playwright who provides the logic and dramaturgy to the piece. Finally, the last cast member arrives for rehearsal: a tall, beautiful brunette pushes her oversized sunglasses up to reveal Emmy-nominated actress D’Arcy Carden in her Broadway debut. Carden plays Alicia, the actress who is not Native American. She simply “plays Native American.” (She also was the third understudy for Princess Jasmine at Disney World, but she is not Middle Eastern, either.) She is “English, French, and a little bit Spanish.” At least, she thinks so. The team’s realization that they must create a historically accurate Thanksgiving Play with an all-white cast catalyzes the primary conflict of the play. The journey to finding the answer is a hilarious, satirical joy that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for the ninety-minute performance.
Rachel Chavkin’s ability to make each character’s movement motivated and strategic in a small box set designed by Riccardo Hernandez was astounding. On stage, tables were moved around to broaden the space, computers and whiteboards allowed Caden to give the audience and actors a brief history lesson about the history of Thanksgiving (with projections designed by David Bengali), leaving a lot of space for improv during the characters’ hilarious devising process. The play does not lend itself to flashy lighting, but Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design is also worth noting. Yew nailed the migraine-inducing lights that we all remember from high school without inducing an actual migraine, and she added sharp fade-outs that played up the comedy of each scene's conclusion.
Throughout the performance, it was unsettling to be reminded that each racist intermezzo was a real lesson plan that FastHorse pulled from the internet. In one, two Indians play with a gun. One shoots the other, and then one of the Indians hangs himself. During the performance, I could feel the audience members asking themselves, “Should I laugh?” and the tension as they wondered which racist preschool song would pop up next. You might be thinking, “these lesson plans have to be from a long time ago.” Nope. One song was from 2016, not even ten years ago.
These musical interludes highlighted to me, a Native person, the absence of Indigenous actors in the play. If Alicia was actually Native American, how might she combat these stereotypes to the audience? How many audience members have never met a Native person? How many people would assume that the content the children sing about is what Native American Heritage Month and the first Thanksgiving was all about?
FastHorse brings up these questions onstage at the top of Scene Two, when Logan and Jaxton are trying to figure out what to do about Alicia’s whiteness. Jaxton asks whether they should ask a Native American person what to do, but the closest person they can think of who may be associated with a Native person is Jaxton’s white friend who built a sweat lodge on his deck. The message of The Thanksgiving Play can be whittled down to one sentence that Logan utters: “I don’t know any Native Americans.”
The future that FastHorse and I push for is one in which Native actors would already be familiar to directors.
Logan and Jaxton are rightfully concerned about redface, the offensive practice of a non-Native American person wearing makeup or clothing, typically in a performance, to imitate an Indigenous person. This is what Alicia would be doing if she embodied a Native American character for the Thanksgiving Play. Towards the end of the show, when Jaxton and Caden try to intensify the devising process, they propose that they perform a show where they kick around decapitated Indigenous heads (as the pilgrims did according to historical documents). Blood goes everywhere: on the walls, the ceiling, and all over the cast. As Alicia is throwing fake blood around, she gets some smeared on her face. She literally has red on her face. Alicia and the rest of the characters, while trying to dance around the idea of redface, stepped right into it. They can’t create a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving Play with a cast of white people. Trying to imitate the experience of a Native person onstage without a Native presence in the room is redface.
As the FastHorse profile in Playbill, which was reprinted on the front of the Hayes, says, “FastHorse lives her life among ‘well-meaning white people.’ You’ve met them. Heck, most of us probably are them.” She wrote The Thanksgiving People for white liberals so they could see themselves from her perspective, which is often the only Native perspective in the room.
I also know what it feels like to often be the only Native person in the room. Like FastHorse, who grew up in South Dakota, my Native dad was adopted and grew up in a primarily white, small town in Southern Minnesota. My dad, sister, and I were the only Native Americans in a too-many-miles radius. When I went to college in rural Iowa, this experience was only amplified as I began to step into my own identity as an Indigenous woman. I never saw my Native identity represented onstage. Many other Native Americans do not see themselves represented either, even if they live in bigger cities. FastHorse recognizes this reality too. In that profile on the side of the theatre, she states that “Broadway hasn’t been a familiar space for Native people.”
How long will it be until I see another Indigenous name on a Broadway theatre marquee?
While it may be disheartening to not see any Indigenous actors onstage at the Hayes Theater, FastHorse did this for a reason: producing The Thanksgiving Play gets a Native voice produced by requiring a cast of white (or white passing) actors. Now, theatre programs like mine in the Midwest are able to produce an Indigenous playwright because of the white cast. Many Indigenous playwrights have struggled to have their work produced because theatres believe that there is a lack of Indigenous actors available. FastHorse says that those ideas are blatantly wrong. Native actors do exist, but spaces like Broadway do not know or acknowledge them. I hope that The Thanksgiving Play challenges future directors to be unlike Logan and Jaxton, who wait for an unfamiliar face to arrive because they don't know any Native Americans, let alone Native American actors. The future that FastHorse and I push for is one in which Native actors would already be familiar to directors—a world in which Logan and Jaxton would already know the Indigenous actress coming to work with them.
Ignorance is not always intentional, as showcased by the songs that are featured in the racist intermezzi. The children who sing these songs only know what they have been taught. One of the best ways to combat this kind of ignorance is correct and intentional education. Sometimes people need an invitation into conversation that they would not seek out on their own. The Thanksgiving Play invites the audience to ask themselves how many Indigenous people they know. What lies and stereotypes have they believed about the Indigenous experience? Not because they are bad people, but because they were under- or misinformed.
The audience’s laughter at both the production of The Thanksgiving Play I directed and at the Hayes Theater leaves me with questions that haunt me as an Indigenous artist. What can I do better to support other Native artists? How long will it be until I see another Indigenous name on a Broadway theatre marquee? When can we see Native American artists both onstage and behind the scenes as playwrights, directors, and designers on Broadway? This show has given me—and many other Indigenous actors—hope that it won’t be long. Because Larissa FastHorse said “I want to be first,” other Indigenous artists like me can say, “I want to be next.”