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Thanksgiving Is a Sport

Date: Jan 21, 2015
They’re just your typical American family, getting together for Thanksgiving dinner. Except there are no tables, chairs, or turkey. And the characters have names like Cheesecake and Cherry Pie. And the meal is served in a gym.

“I’m tired of looking at living rooms on stage,” says Kate Benson, discussing her debut play A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes. (The play is at City Center through Feb. 7, produced by New Georges in association Women’s Project Theater.)

By itself, that mouthful of a title suggests this will not be a traditional domestic drama. Then there are the sports announcers -- designated in the program as “@” and “#” -- who comment on the action as Cheesecake (the youngest of three sisters) tries to host the holiday meal. “If you’re just joining us here on Wembly Fairway, we’re here on the 9th hole,” they might report. “Cheesecake is preparing to turn the bird.”

Asked about her off-kilter approach, Benson says, “American family dramas are supposed to be about a house. They’re supposed to be about a lineage. They’re supposed to be about shitty parents doing terrible things to their children and the struggle their children have to work that out. There is a family secret, a family struggle, a family illness. I never necessarily connected to them because my immediate family is pretty good at keeping things nice and pretty functional.”

So instead of August: Osage County-style screaming matches, Great Lakes is a look at all the little tensions that accompany almost any family gathering, from your mother’s passive aggressive statements to your sister’s kids screaming for three hours straight.

“I definitely recognize things from my family,” says director Lee Sunday Evans, who was given a script by Benson that contained no stage directions. Furthermore, Benson doesn’t want the production to use props, and Evans didn’t want the cast miming actions like cooking a turkey. So instead, she choreographed movements for the actors that are a mix of sports poses and ESPN instant replays.

When Cherry Pie finishes making mashed potatoes, for instance, she slowly lifts them high above her head like a weightlifter pushing up a heavy barbell. The point, at least partially, is to force the audience to actively listen to the sports announcers and picture the details of the dinner for themselves. “The story is the composite between the text and the movement, and then it’s actually in the audience’s imagination,” says Evans. “Theatre should require the audience to be active in that way. You definitely don’t need to see the turkey burning.”

To destabilize our expectations even further, the 10-person cast is also multiracial. Cheesecake is played by Asian-American actress Brooke Ishibashi (who’s also a star of TDF’s Theatre Dictionary), and her sisters Trifle and Cherry Pie are played (respectively) by white actress Nina Hellman and African-American actress Heather Alicia Simms. For Benson, a diverse cast means that Great Lakes is the story of an every-family, instead of one particular clan. “If we had made the entire family Welsh, for example, then it would be a funny story about some Welsh people, instead of a funny story about Americans practicing this very strange holiday.”

Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City

Photo by Heather Phelps-Lipton