There is much to be grateful for on Broadway this season. In terms of plays, we’ve been blessed with stellar, new works that include Ain’t No Mo, Cost of Living, Leopoldstadt, Good Night, Oscar, and now, The Thanksgiving Play (★★★★★), a dark and devilish satire by Larissa FastHorse.
While gratitude should be a reflection and practice we incorporate into our daily lives, it is a virtue most closely associated with the fourth Thursday of November. That’s when we gather with friends and family, stuff ourselves silly with turkey, watch football, and fall asleep on the couch — all in the name of a long-perpetuated myth.
FastHorse is having none of it. With The Thanksgiving Play, the 2020 Macarthur Fellow and recipient of numerous literary and theater awards shines an uncomfortable, long overdue light on the nation’s celebration of Thanksgiving.
Fear not. There won’t be a pop quiz. Nor will it feel like a lecture or a didactic history lesson. Instead, you get 90 zippy minutes of off-the-rails comedy performed by four recognizable and immensely talented actors, all attempting to achieve the same goal: to create and stage a new play that recognizes and honors Native Americans without being offensive or exclusive to any group.
As a first-day rehearsal gift to high school drama director Logan (Katie Finneran), her boyfriend Jaxton (Scott Foley), a street performer helping to craft the play, buys her a water bottle. Proudly, he boasts that it’s from the farmer’s market and is “symbolic of the way we’re going to create this play.”
He continues: “We start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race then turn all that into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids.”
Later, Caden (Chris Sullivan), an elementary school history teacher from a neighboring district, and Alicia (D’Arcy Carden) an utterly vapid but beautiful Los Angeles actress, stage an improv scene with Jaxton.
When Alicia requests more stuffing, Caden clarifies, “Stuffing is a modern dish. A more likely side considering the efficiency of the early settlers would be a type of sweetbreads or pate.” With frustration, Logan exclaims, “Caden, we call improv a world of yes. We don’t judge or try to make sense of choices, we simply say ‘Yes’ and see where it leads us.”
Logan’s seemingly tossed-away line is a major crux of the piece, especially when one replaces the word “improv” with “America.” Ever since we began teaching history, we’ve blindly agreed to the falsehood that the Pilgrims took cooking lessons from Native Americans and the two groups broke bread and lived harmoniously with one another. The truth reveals a much different narrative.
Despite government compacts and agreements, we unjustly slaughtered 12 million people in the Indigenous holocaust between 1492 to 1900 and stole their land. Where has this led us?
For some, around the dinner table every autumn to vaingloriously promote what many declare as their “God given gifts and rights.” For others, it has ruffled their liberal feathers, taking them down a path of virtual signaling wokeness that shows the world just how good they can be. FastHorse’s play speaks to all of them.
The resolve of this 2nd Stage Production is perhaps the most truthful aspect. It asks us to examine how much we are willing to sacrifice before true change can happen. The shameful answer? Not much.
In recent media interviews, the South Dakota-born, Native American playwright has shared that eighty percent of The Thanksgiving Play is extracted from actual sentences and scenarios. If, after leaving The Hayes Theater, this does not give one immediate pause, then a deep introspection of the soul and conscience should ensue.
FastHorse’s work has had a unique road to Broadway, having been produced several times in regional theaters and Off-Broadway in 2018 at Playwrights Horizons. In 2019, it was one of the most-produced plays in the country. It has undergone several revisions and in the process has become even more painfully and cleverly relevant.
Rachel Chavkin effectively directs the physically demanding piece, delivered with acerbic force by the small but potent cast. With such a fine option for a night of theater, how can we not grab tickets and give thanks?
The Thanksgiving Play runs through June 4 at The Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St. in New York City. Tickets are $49 to $210. Call 212-541-4516 or visit www.2st.com.
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