The Thanksgiving Play is a hilarious examination of the absurdity of human existence and interactions

Photo by Michael Brolisow

The notion of a Thanksgiving play conjures images of 4th-graders gathered in a gym to watch some poorly-acted, rote telling of the romanticized tale of the First Thanksgiving that cheesily celebrates a friendly dinner between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. The story it tells is charming, but it is also (as most of us know) a total lie. And it ignores the fact that the Wampanoag, exposed to diseases they had no protection from, were all but wiped out. The story of Native Americans enjoying a warm-hearted meal with the Europeans who were already in the process of usurping their lands and everything that defined their heritage is, quite literally, a White-washed version of history.

Of course, playwright Larissa FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, understands this. Her The Thanksgiving Play—now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre—is, she says, a satire within a comedy: on the one hand, it is outrageously funny, encouraging playgoers to laugh at the absurdity of trying to put on a play that can’t possibly offend anyone at a time when Americans are very easily offended; living within that play, though, is a satirical examination of how we too often and too easily forget to entertain in our genuflections to the god(dess) of “wokeness.”

(Author’s note: I absolutely hate that the forces of MAGA conservativism have made this concept, which in its birth was an homage to understanding and “seeing” each other, into such an obscenity that even liberals like me have to be careful with it. Still, there is no denying that their histrionics have succeeded in making the word a parody of itself. However, they have left a vacuum of thought that a clever writer like FastHorse can fill with at times shocking clarity, revealing how far away from clarity well-meaning people end up going in service to this seemingly benign idea.)

Anyway:

Directed by Jess McLeod, FastHorse’s play takes us to one of those primary school gyms, in which a beleaguered director named Logan (Audrey Francis) is trying to save her job by creating a new Thanksgiving Play to celebrate Native American month. Logan is a parody all by herself: she’s sincere, but she is also so much a product of the post-George Floyd liberal educational universe that she feels an almost desperate need to be unoffensive. Along with her lover, a street performer named Jaxton (Nate Santana), and a 4th-grade history teacher named Caden (Tim Hopper), Logan wants to make a show that will both entertain and instruct…as long as it doesn’t tread on anyone’s toes.

Logan has decided to use one of her grants—there is an ongoing sub-parody of the current culture of getting money for education from donors who have their own agendas—to make sure she has an actual Native American actor, allowing that particular “voice” to be a part of her play. Unfortunately for her, though, the woman she has hired (from a “Native American headshot”) is exotic-looking and devoid of cultural qualms enough to play many different ethnicities—another sub-parody has her listing the number of Disney roles she has played or understudied—but she is most definitely White, leaving well-meaning Logan with an all-White cast to devise a play to celebrate indigenous people. Paloma Nozicka has a whale of a time playing this actor, Alicia, who easily admits to being too stupid—”I’ve been tested”—to care much about being politically correct…or even to understand the nuances of acting. Asked what her process is for portraying these various ethnicities, she simply replies that she pretends to be them. Give her a script and she will say the words; that’s all she cares about.

(Yes, there is another sub-parody here.)

Although Caden is a closet playwright—he has apparently written historically accurate plays for his fourth graders to read in class—Logan decides that the four will be devising a play, a process involving lots of improv to try to make something new. As depicted here, it also involves throwing every single idea out there and figuring out which one(s) stick. The result is that the central proceedings stop periodically to show the results of some of these brainstorming sessions. We get an absurd parody of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in which a “Pilgrim” wearing light-up gym shoes sings about the various gifts “the Natives gave to me,” another scene in which they are all playing turkeys (in silly minimalist costumes), one that features a hard-rocking protest of the name and logo of the Chicago Blackhawks, and even one that leans into the real history of White/Native relations so hard that the stage ends up drenched in blood. And all of this is outside of the main “play” they are devising; the key question FastHorse is examining here is the intrinsic contradiction inherent in trying not to be offensive while depicting the start of a genocide…and how to show this while still making the audience laugh.

Turns out that crafting a play that forces us to examine the absurdity of a culture that wants to venerate Native Americans once a year after doing its best over centuries to erase them from existence isn’t easy, and laughing at that absurdity as well as at ourselves, as FastHorse discovers, just might be the only honest, palatable way to do it. The Thanksgiving Play is a send-up of those who bend over backward so far to make the world seem less harsh that they discover that they have made balance impossible…and end up collapsing under their own weight amid its harshness.

The history of the world is rife with one example after another of those in power trying to wipe out minorities they fear due to inconsequential differences. It doesn’t matter whether those differences derive from skin color, politics, religion, gender, or whatever: there are always those for whom obliterating the problem is a better solution than trying to understand it. This is such a universal truth of the human experience that you’d be hard pressed to find an example of any conflict anywhere at any time in history in which it isn’t true. It’s a nice fantasy to think we could sit down to a friendly meal, learn to appreciate instead of fear each other, and start to accept that different is not a bad thing and that we don’t all need to live the same way. Given the abundant evidence, though, it’s a fantasy that is never going to come true. The best we can do, as FastHorse understands, is to step back, laugh at our own insanity, and see how ridiculous it all is.

The Thanksgiving Play is a Steppenwolf Theatre production now playing at their Ensemble Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted in Chicago, through June 2.  Performance times vary; check the website at Steppenwolf.org.  Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

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