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Larissa FastHorse on Indigenizing Theatre

This year, Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota) became the first Indigenous woman writer with a play on Broadway with her “comedy within a satire,” The Thanksgiving Play. In it, a group of mostly well-meaning white educators and actors attempt to devise a Thanksgiving production to be performed for students. Curious about Broadway reception of Larissa’s oft-produced play, feminist critic Holly L. Derr spoke to her via Zoom about The Thanksgiving Play, her next few projects, and her use of satire to create change.

Holly: Where are you and what are you working on right now? Because I know you’ve already left New York—where you were for rehearsals for the Broadway production—behind.

Larissa: Like usual I had to leave the day after opening. I am now in South Dakota with Cornerstone Theater Company and we’re working on two plays: our touring play Wicoun, which is going to tour reservations of South Dakota, and then Michael Garcés and I are working on a youth play, which is going to be performed by one of our community partners, the Lakota Youth Development, for traveling tourists.

Holly: Wow. That seems like worlds away from a commercial play on Broadway. Is there a little bit of culture shock going from one to another?

Larissa: Not culture shock for me because this is my home. It’s definitely a very different way of working, for sure, in a different world. Right now, I’m talking to you from the middle of the Black Hills. We’re in the forest in a beautiful valley, cut by a stream, surrounded by trees, and no phone reception, very little internet. So that part is definitely very different, but for me it’s coming home. So it feels great.

A woman with wildly tousled hair steps out from behind two upright card tables.

Katie Finneran in The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse at Second Stage Theater. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Jeanette Oui-Suk Yew. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Video/projection design by David Bengali. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Holly: Great. Well, I know that it was literally a goal of yours and that you strategized to be the first Native American woman with a play on Broadway. How does it feel to have achieved that goal you set for yourself?

Larissa: Oh, it feels amazing. I mean, it’s been a long time and a lot of really hard work to get here. So it does feel really good, and I’m excited to have the chance to take part in a lot of opportunities because of this now, to make sure that I am not the last Native American playwright this century—because so far we’ve only had one per century—on Broadway. I’m really excited to be part of changing that.

Holly: That’s awesome. I understand that you have a total of seven more productions in 2023. And one of those things is the Peter Pan rewrite that you’re doing. In terms of rewriting that story, would you mind sort of starting from the beginning and stating the obvious of what needs to be fixed?

Larissa: Peter Pan has been actually harmful to a lot of Indigenous folks— Well, all Indigenous folks in this country anyway. It’s something that has been very painful for Native people, both the depiction of us as the only people in Neverland who can’t seem to grasp English and as folks are being played in redface. Both of those things have been a problem in the past that needed to be solved. And then also the fact that Wendy has no lines that are not related to Peter in some way and doesn’t have a song, and that Tiger Lily also doesn’t seem to have any relationship with Wendy really hardly at all.

And frankly, if you read the descriptions, there’s a promotion of rape culture that I’m shocked that we’ve been letting children read all this time. If you read the description of Tiger Lily, it says how she’s this fierce warrior and because of that all the Braves of her tribe want to be coupled with her. And because she’s a fierce warrior, she’s been able to fight them off and stay single this long. My jaw did what yours just did—dropped—because I couldn’t believe we are letting children read that paragraph over and over again. That it’s legitimate for a woman to only survive as single by physically fighting men off, and that that was seen as a positive for her. That was really shocking to me. So things like that absolutely needed to be changed, and children should never read that paragraph again.

Unless we fix that foundation of anti-Indigeneity, which is still deeply prevalent, then the rest of it is still built on a shaky ground.

Holly: Are you managing to solve a lot of those problems?

Larissa: My current draft tackles all of those things. It makes it so we do have to hire a couple Native actors but we don’t have to play redface for the rest of the group. Wendy has a song, and she has lines that are about her own hopes and dreams. She and Tiger Lily have a scene together—they have action together that isn’t just centered around the men in their lives.

We’re going to tackle a lot of those things very simply, actually, while still retaining all of the things that are fantastic about Peter Pan. I mean, those pirates are hilarious, I love them. They’re so funny and they’re so good. And there’s a reason this title is so beloved and has lasted this long. It’s actually really good. And so, in so many ways we kept all of that and just fixed the things that needed fixing within the structure of the original. It is not a full reimagining, it’s simply a fixing, which I’m excited about.

Holly: That sounds great. I’m excited too.

So, I think The Thanksgiving Play is anti-racist. I think it does anti-racist work. What does that mean to you? And would you even agree with me saying that you are an anti-racist writer?

Larissa: That’s a good question. I have to think because I haven’t ever thought of myself in that way, because I’m specifically, in most of my work, indigenizing. And I think even this work—The Thanksgiving Play—even though it is talking about a lot of facets of racism in this country and white supremacy culture, my work is always very specifically pointing back to indigenizing.

I’m very specifically trying to indigenize our educational system, our arts, our audiences, our stages, our production people. I’m focused on indigenizing first to correct the foundation this country is built on, which is in an anti-Indigenous foundation, from which all the other racism grew, right? I’m trying to correct that foundation first, and that’s where my focus is as an artist and as a human. Because I feel like unless we fix that foundation of anti-Indigeneity, which is still deeply prevalent, then the rest of it is still built on a shaky ground. So, I’m starting from the bottom and then working my way up through all the other racisms and other isms.

The Thanksgiving Play is as much about misogyny as it is about racism. I call myself an Indigenous woman, because I’m a female-identifying person, so I say “Indigenous woman” for what I am identified as. That assumes so many things in the Lakota worldview. It means I have the most, if you will, divine power because we have the power of actually creating life. And so we’re considered closest to the creator, whatever that means to you, as women. And therefore we have a sacred space in our culture that is revered and upheld in very specific practical and ceremonial ways. I’m talking a lot about misogyny in The Thanksgiving Play. It’s almost more prevalent, or at least as prevalent, as talking about Indigeneity.

It’s fascinating to me, though, how often I’ve been in read-throughs with actors and the collaborators didn’t even notice. I mean, that’s how deep it is, right? They didn’t notice that every time the lead character Logan says something, the group rejects it until her male partner underscores it. And as soon as he says it, then they all move into action. When I mentioned it, they were like, “Whoa. What?” I was like, “Yeah.” Every single time.

I even had some people say, “Well, he’s just being supportive.” No. If everybody was jumping into action doing what she said and then also he was saying, “Yes, this was a fantastic idea,” that would be supportive. But everybody is sitting there not doing anything until the man says yes. It’s not being supportive.

A seated woman hugs the man who kneels beside her, while another man looks on in shock.

D’Arcy Carden, Scott Foley, and Chris Sullivan in The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse at Second Stage Theater. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Jeanette Oui-Suk Yew. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Video/projection design by David Bengali. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Holly: I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t pick up on that. As soon as you said it, I was like, Yep, that’s true. But even the feminist media critic reading the play did not pick up on that.

You write in multiple genres, but The Thanksgiving Play is satire, right?

Larissa: I call it a comedy within a satire.

Holly: Okay. A comedy within a satire. And you tend to write satire or at least tend to write comedy.

Larissa: Yeah, I mean, everything I do is funny. It’s interesting because as I’ve been going through this process of doing a lot of interviews, I’ve always said “Native American people, we had to use comedy to cope” and, you know, “That’s how we survived and became resilient.” And recently I had a Native Elder, a woman, say to me, “No, no, no. Larissa, you’re getting it wrong. You’re giving the colonizers credit for something that isn’t theirs.” She said, “Comedy is our culture and it was one of the tools we used to survive and resist and thrive in spite of colonization. But it’s not because of them, so don’t give them credit.” She said, “Comedy is our culture and humor is our culture.” So that’s us. And we used it as a tool, which I thought was really like, Whoa, wow, I’ve been doing that, I’ve been giving credit to the colonizers for something that is Indigenous, it’s Lakota. And I’m Lakota.

So, I use comedy and satire together constantly. I think the satire really comes, though, to be honest, from my upbringing with British television, which my parents were really into. I think that’s definitely where my satire chops got honed.

Tons of people hate my work, and that’s great. I think if everyone loved my work, I’d be worried.

Holly: Does that satire ever make people so uncomfortable as to not like your work? Do you ever get negative responses because of it?

Larissa: Oh my gosh, I have way more negative reviews than positive reviews. So many more. The New York Times finally didn’t hate my play, but generally yeah, and even in this Broadway production there’s tons. And I don’t read reviews, but I get the Google alerts for my name and I’ll check to see what it is, and suddenly you see the headline and you’re like, Oh shoot, it’s a review. I didn’t realize it was a review. And it’s something horrible.

Tons of people hate my work, and that’s great. I think if everyone loved my work, I’d be worried. I wouldn’t feel like I’m doing what I personally, as an artist, have set out to do, which is to change things. Maybe it’s a very ineffective way to change things, but the tools I’ve been given and the voice and the vehicle I’ve been given is theatre, so I’m using that to change things, change audiences, change institutions, change systems.

Holly: And certainly satire has long been used for that purpose.

Larissa: It’s not a super efficient way but, like I said, it’s what I’ve got.

Holly: What about the audience response to The Thanksgiving Play’s Broadway production? Has that been really positive?

Four actors sit in a classroom set.

D’Arcy Carden, Chris Sullivan, Katie Finneran, and Scott Foley in The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse at Second Stage Theater. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Jeanette Oui-Suk Yew. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Video/projection design by David Bengali. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Larissa: Oh my gosh, it’s crazy. While I was in New York, at least up through opening, our audiences were extremely colorful—diverse in race, gender, age, ability… So many different ways. It was really gorgeous. It’s not at all what I expected on Broadway, to be perfectly honest. I thought it would be more of a traditional older, white theatre audience. And it was not at all, which is really exciting and fun to see. But, also, people are raucous, they’re fun, they’re loud, they’re talking back to the stage. It’s such a great experience to watch.

It’s not for everyone. We get random folks that get their TKTS tickets minutes before and come running in and are like, “What is this? Why? How’d I end up here?” There’s a really troubling scene to some people. There’s a scene of actual history that’s depicted graphically and when I was there, the only people I saw walk out of that scene were older white men who were furious and made it very clear that they were furious. That depicting the pilgrims doing exactly what they wrote down they did—I took it from their own writings—was offensive to them. And I thought, All right, well, that’s great. Maybe, they’ll think about that later. Who knows.

Holly: Is this when the pilgrims play soccer with the heads of Indigenous people?

Larissa: Yep. It’s disturbing. They wrote it right down. They did. I just took it right from their own writings. You know, I don’t give answers in my plays. I just raise a lot of questions for us to think about so that we’re doing things with intentionality, but we’re also doing things with humor so that we can go forward together into a better future, I hope.

Holly: That seems like a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much.

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This was a great article! Very informative. Thank you for the insights into "The Thanksgiving Play." I'll be sharing this with friends so we can keep a lookout for your "Peter Pan." Break all the legs on both of your next ventures!