The Thanksgiving Play Hilariously Revises America's Revisionist History
Larissa FastHorse pokes fun at cultural misappropriation and ineffectual do-gooders.
Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse has written a rambunctious and edgy satire of wokeness, The Thanksgiving Play, now running at the Geffen, in which she satirizes America's precarious relationship to racial issues and gives a Native American writer's perspective on the so-called white man's burden.
Logan (Samantha Sloyan), a well-meaning but scatterbrained high school drama teacher, finds her career on the line because of some questionable school-play choices. The posters on the classroom wall reveal some of those past presentations, including Shakespeare's gore-filled Titus Andronicus and William Mastrosimone's revenge play Extremities. Hoping to assuage the concerns of parents, Logan chooses an improvisational pageant of Thanksgiving, with a fully respectful Native American voice.
She receives multiple grants from minority groups to hire a historian, Caden (Jeff Marlow), from a local elementary school, and a Native American actor from Hollywood, Alicia (Alexandra Henrikson). Jaxton (Noah Bean), an affected actor and street performer, helps build the script. Logan's troubles pile up as she discovers that, despite her headshot making her look as such, Alicia is not really Native American. Caden's "historically accurate" sequences are racially insensitive. Most frustrating, none of the four posers have the talent to write anything remotely entertaining or enlightening. The classroom devolves into chaos with all four covered in fake blood and guts.
FastHorse skewers her superficially "woke" characters with funny dialogue and a keen recognition of harebrained ideas in American schooling (many of the absurd class lessons performed during The Thanksgiving Play are lifted from actual educators' Pinterest pages). However, the plot has no arc. The four characters end the tale pretty much where they began. Besides revealing liberal hypocrisy, the story doesn't dig deep.
The cast perfectly embodies these ambitious but dim characters. In the opening sequence, a Thanksgiving version of "The 12 Days of Christmas," the actors immediately divulge the characters' essences. Bean's Jaxton enunciates every word slowly as if he's reciting a soliloquy from Hamlet, Sloyan's Logan appears overwhelmed, Marlow's Caden acts flabbergasted, and Henrikson's Alicia solicits dates from half the front row of the audience.
Bean is hilarious as the overserious slacker who believes he's immensely enlightened, but most of his language is double-talk. Though her character is in over her head, Sloyan turns Logan into the play's heart. She wants to project a positive image so badly; she becomes her own worst enemy. Henrikson gives dignity to her vacuous character, never turning her into a sex-starved cartoon, and Marlow ramps the comedy up as an underachiever who thinks this hodgepodge school play will be a launching pad for a writing career.
Director Michael John Garcés adds levity to the production by warming the audience to the characters, only to turn the stage into a bloody mess. Garry Lennon's playful design includes appropriately sloppy turkey costumes and everyday dress that reflects the character's personalities, from Jaxton's Mexican Baja hoodie that probably is made of hemp to Logan's multilayering to hide her body issues. Sara Ryung Clement's set looks so much like a classroom, one can almost smell the paste and chalk.
Humorous and well-performed, The Thanksgiving Play demonstrates that in these divisive times, even allies can be glib about the plights of the minorities they claim to understand. However, the script focuses only on the characters' dimness despite their great intentions, without drawing conclusions or making a clear statement. Like Aunt Bessie's turkey from last year, it could have used some more time in the oven.