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In 2020, Larissa FastHorse’s ‘The Thanksgiving Play’ Takes On New Meaning


In late October, Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse was among the recipients of a prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant. Among her achievements is “The Thanksgiving Play,” now on stage (so to speak) at WAM Theatre, based in Lenox, Massachusetts.

In this pandemic year, the video went live last night and is up through the weekend.

“The Thanksgiving Play” is a satire about a group of white teachers writing an elementary school play that combines the myth of the first Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month, which is November.

These are people with good intentions that go bad. Take the character of Logan, played by Molly Parker Myers: She used a grant to hire an actress thinking — because of her headshot — she was Native American.

She is not.

“So we’re four white people, making a culturally sensitive First Thanksgiving for Native American Heritage Month? Oh my Goddess,” Logan says in the play.

“Whatever! It’s theater!” quips the character of Alicia, played by Carissa Marie Dagenais. “We don’t need actual Native Americans to tell a Native American story. I mean, none of us are actually pilgrims, are we?”

Another character points out the pilgrims didn’t call themselves Pilgrims.

Not to be defeated in her reasoning, Alicia whips through a list of Disney characters.

“Is Lumiere a real candlestick?” she posits.

“Actually, he kind of was,” says Jaxton, played by Tom Truss.

The characters are self-conscious, liberal and pat themselves on the back for being so.

But this witty play — about making a play — is a comedy with a bigger message about centuries of near erasure of Native Americans.

WAM’s production of “The Thanksgiving Play” begins with something that connects the audience to the local indigenous community. FastHorse asks this to happen in all productions. WAM produced a “land acknowledgement” video to start the show, with Heather Bruegl from the Stockbridge-Munsee community.

“I’m honored to be coming to you today from our reservation lands in northeast Wisconsin, which was created by the Treaty of 1856. Prior to that, our homelands were in the Mahicantuck River Valley area, which, you know as the Hudson River Valley, along with other areas of New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut.”

The Stockbridge-Munsee Community is a Mohican tribe that is now largely in Wisconsin. The tribe was forced west and north by white people taking their land over centuries.

“I think it’s a vital play to be put on right now because we’re at this moment of racial reckoning as a country and as an arts industry,” said Talya Kingston, the director of the WAM production, who was able to speak with FastHorse several times while developing the show.

This is a play that will allow white people attempting to do anti-racism work to see themselves, Kingston said, particularly in the week before Thanksgiving.

“It hopefully will allow them to laugh at themselves,” then stopped and corrected herself, “ourselves, I should say, not themselves. But it’s also a very sharp satire that Larissa has written from really knowing people.”

Including some educators who turn to the internet to find curriculum.

In one scene, the character of Logan — the elementary school teacher responsible for organizing the Thanksgiving pageant — is browsing the internet for engaging activities for her students. She finds a counting song, sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The lyrics:

On the fifth day of Thanksgiving, the natives gave to me…
five pair of moccasins
four bows and arrows,
three native headdresses,
two turkey gobbles,
and a pumpkin in a pumpkin patch.

…and so on. The script indicates that any “curriculum” FastHorse wrote into the play was found in actual teacher posts online.

At the end of the counting song, the audience hears a a voiced “teachers note” guiding others who might use this material.

“This song can do more than teach counting. I divide my students into Indians and Pilgrims, so the Indians can practice sharing,” the teacher says.

It is a cringeworthy moment, Kingston said, in an activist play, as she called it, being produced by an activist theater.

WAM, which stands for “where arts and activism meet,” made sure to hire a Native American illustrator for the virtual production, Katari Wilson, and to connect the production with the Mohican tribe.

Kingston, who is white, admits at times she saw herself and her colleagues in some of FastHorse’s dialogue. WAM, she said, is not done doing its work.

“I absolutely think that we need to work more with Indigenous directors and artists going forward,” Kingston said. “I think it’s an appropriate play for a white director to direct. It’s a play about whiteness and about white privilege.”

FastHorse wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story, but she’s previously said “The Thanksgiving Play” is her least favorite work, her most depressing success, even as she loves the play.

She wrote it, she’s said, in response to the feedback she was getting about her other work. She was told those plays couldn’t be produced for a wide audience, because there weren’t enough indigenous actors to portray her characters.

That’s just not true, said Priscilla Page, who is of Wiyot heritage and researches Native American theater.

“If you look at the last four decades of Native American theater, you will find plays do get produced and there are Native American actors who can and do act professionally,” Page said.

Page is also a dramaturge, a historian and a theater professor at UMass Amherst. This semester she’s teaching “The Thanksgiving Play” to her students and recently Larissa FastHorse spoke with them.

“[FastHorse] is the first Native American playwright to make this list that “American Theatre” puts out of the most produced plays of 2019,” Page said.

But Page said there’s an interesting tension about “The Thanksgiving Play.”

“Lo and behold, this play by a Native American playwright — it has no Native American actors,” Page said.

“The Thanksgiving Play” is FastHorse’s sendup of political correctness and progressive people who want to do better, Page said.

“I think she’s kind of pointing her finger, like, ‘Are you doing better?’ I think she’s asking that really critical question and using humor to do it,” Page said.

The importance and value of this play, she added, is “theater being this mirror to hold up to society.”

On stage, “The Thanksgiving Play” does not end in a moment of catharsis, Kingston said.

But there is a second half of the play, she said. It’s what the audience can do after the lights come up, including rethinking how to celebrate this Thanksgiving.

Jill Kaufman is a reporter and host at New England Public Media.

This story was first published by New England Public Media.





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