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Playwright Larissa FastHorse and director Rachel Chavkin on why this show hits so hard right now
America's problematic Thanksgiving myth has long been a touchy topic, but it gets a thorough roasting in Larissa FastHorse's satire The Thanksgiving Play, currently running at Second Stage's Hayes Theatre . Don't come looking for closure, though. "My plays always leave you with more questions than answers," says FastHorse, who's the first known Native American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. "It brings up a lot to think about."
The setup is juicy: Four well-meaning but misguided white folks—drama teacher Logan (Katie Finneran), her underemployed actor boyfriend Jaxton (Scott Foley), history buff Caden (Chris Sullivan) and ethnically ambiguous starlet Alicia (D'Arcy Carden)—attempt to devise a play about the authentic origins of Thanksgiving to present to elementary school students. Although they lean into our nation's bloody past, their obliviousness and performative wokeness turn the piece into a hilarious turkey.
"These characters look the truth of the violence and the history in the face again and again, and somehow keep making the wrong decisions," says director Rachel Chavkin. As a liberal white woman in theatre, she can relate. "The extent of the damage and violence that whiteness has wrought—and continues to do so—is endless. To a certain extent, even having conversations like this, I can feel like I'm quoting the play! That is both terrifying and exhilarating, and part of Larissa's brilliance."
Presented in an earlier incarnation Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2018, the revised Thanksgiving Play feels even more pointed as the culture wars heat up in our country's classrooms. Teachers are being censored, student productions are being cancelled and books are being pulled off library shelves. According to FastHorse, this sociopolitical moment is "definitely resonating" with Thanksgiving Play audiences. She credits Chavkin's addition of interstitial videos featuring young children in cringey, tone-deaf Thanksgiving pageants—inspired by actual school presentations!—as helping to drive the connection home. "This is what kids are being brought up with," Chavkin notes.
The miseducation is only getting worse. Even innocuous stories, like Molly of Denali: Berry Itchy Day, are being banned simply because they're told from a nonwhite perspective. "It's about little Native kids going berry picking!" FastHorse says with irritation. "That really made me mad."
She channeled her frustration into writing the Broadway iteration of The Thanksgiving Play. At one point, she directly references the heart of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' Stop Woke Act, with the following statement displayed on-screen as Logan looks on contemplatively: "Due to the potential for your fellow students to feel discomfort or guilt because of this presentation, it cannot be shared with the class." As FastHorse explains: "We put those words straight up in front of everybody because I felt like it was important to talk about that and address it head-on."
Logan is "one of these educators who is trying to hold the truth of history on one side, and the delicacy of educating children on the other," Chavkin says. While the director does not condone the "crazy decision" the character ultimately makes about sharing the background of the holiday, she understands how it happens. "I don't want the audience to lose sight of the fact that there are teachers who are very palpably navigating this shit today."
Despite so many real-life Thanksgiving school play fails, Chavkin and FastHorse are advocates for arts education. "Good art makes us think in complicated ways," Chavkin says. "That skill, that capacity for nuance and for sitting with discomfort, is integral to being robust and resilient people as we learn to exist ethically with both the past and the present."
"From an Indigenous woman's perspective, the educational system is failing everyone," adds FastHorse. "The complete erasure [of Native American culture] that continues is profound." Perhaps that's why audiences are so eager to learn about her experiences and Native American history, and why plays by her fellow Indigenous writers, such as Mary Kathryn Nagle and Madeline Sayet, do so well regionally, even if they have yet to make it to Broadway. "The arts are really serving this role of filling in this massive educational gap we have in this country," she says.
Ultimately, The Thanksgiving Play is a cautionary tale about what happens when arts educators are not given the information, tools and support they need to succeed. "We need to really think about how we're educating the theatre-makers," FastHorse says. "Are we creating theatre-makers who understand what that role can be?"
While FastHorse is gratified to be blazing a trail for other Native American playwrights on Broadway, she admits that "it's a lot of pressure. I worry a lot about making sure the door stays open." Still, she acknowledges "the incredible joy" that comes with making her Broadway debut. "I get to represent millions of people that haven't been here before," she says. "It's not just about me; it's for all of us."
Top image: D'Arcy Carden and Katie Finneran in The Thanksgiving Play on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.