How 'The Thanksgiving Play' on Broadway roasts and reexamines history
The show's cast and creative team share what makes Larissa FastHorse's satire timely and the lessons they've learned that they hope audiences will, too.
Four misguided theatre artists create an educational, Native American-centric Thanksgiving pageant. None of them are Indigenous, and they fret so much over getting everything right that they end up getting things very, very wrong. Such is the meat and potatoes of Larissa FastHorse's The Thanksgiving Play, now on Broadway with the starry quartet of D'Arcy Carden, Katie Finneran, Chris Sullivan, and Scott Foley.
With its pointed satire of white liberalism, The Thanksgiving Play is designed to make audiences uncomfortable while also making them laugh. The characters draw on archetypes — a daffy actress, a yoga bro, a disgraced director, her aspiring-dramatist boyfriend — but are fleshed out enough that they can't be dismissed as caricatures.
"I'd be surprised if every person who saw this play didn't see themselves or someone they knew in every character and didn't come away with more questions than they had going in," said Foley, the Scandal star who now plays Jaxon (the yoga bro).
He certainly saw parallels — and in fact, that almost turned him away from the project entirely. "I read this play first and didn't like it," Foley confessed. "I have come to realize I didn't like it because it scared the hell out of me. I have found myself in the position of these characters, wanting to do the right thing, thinking I'm going to do the right thing, but so afraid of doing the wrong thing that I do nothing.
"By doing this play, I'm not doing nothing," Foley concluded. It was his ultimate answer to why The Thanksgiving Play matters now – a question often asked of shows old and new.
Looking to the past
The Thanksgiving Play returns (after a 2018 Off-Broadway premiere) following the racial equity movement that launched in 2020, which involved reassessing how history is taught.
That includes Native American history – a particular point of interest for FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe. The Indigenous playwright uses The Thanksgiving Play to raise awareness about the disparity between the oft-taught myth of pilgrims and Natives harmoniously sharing a meal, and the bloodier reality.
"I hope that at the end of the laughter, we start to wonder about some of the really horrific history that we're going to learn about in this play and wonder, 'Why didn't we know about this? Why weren't we taught this in school?'" FastHorse said. "That's going on a lot in this country right now, a lot of editing of truth, and I really hope that when people leave, they say, 'Wow, I had such a great time, and I feel welcome and invited to learn more things and grow.'"
Sullivan, the This Is Us star who plays history teacher (and aforementioned boyfriend) Caden, had this experience after he was cast: "I've been completely reeducated on how it all started. The fact that we're not actually sure which is the actual first Thanksgiving, whether or not it was between Native Americans and Spanish people, whether or not it was in Texas, whether it was in Florida... But the story that we were told seems to be fairly far from the first Thanksgiving."
Making change in the present
The Thanksgiving Play may aim to discomfort and challenge people, but it's not out to dismiss or damn them as long as they keep an open mind. "We need to be able to hold the historical trauma that our fellow Americans, whatever group they are from, have encountered or have had to go through," Sullivan said.
"It's not that we are to blame or that it is our fault or that we have any direct relationship to it. But we can hold space for our fellow Americans... so they can process the traumas their communities have been through."
Director Rachel Chavkin wanted to emphasize the characters' "earnest attempt" to do exactly this — to put on a respectful show and honor a culture outside their own. They don't succeed, and that's where the laughter comes in. But the audiences can.
"It's really hard because we're confronting genocide in terms of the relationship between white settlers and the Indigenous population on this continent," Chavkin acknowledged. "And that's really hard to take ownership of and know even what to do with today. For so many audiences, this work now is going to feel incredibly medicinal, both because laughter is this extraordinary medicine and because people are desperate — and particularly, white folks are desperate — to get more information about how to think about all of it."
Fostering the future
FastHorse also uses The Thanksgiving Play to make a point about the lack of Native representation in modern times. The show was born of her inability to get her other plays, which require Native actors, produced due to casting roadblocks. Thus, she took on the challenge to write a Native-centric play with no Native actors.
To make up for the lack of Native talent on stage, FastHorse (herself the first female Native playwright on Broadway) invited Native artists into The Thanksgiving Play behind the scenes. "We have folks that are closely identified with different Native communities in the design team, in Rachel [Chavkin]'s directing team, in the PAs [production assistants]," she said.
"I've also been mentoring Native writers, and so I've been involving them in how this process is and introducing them to people and having them just understand [the differences between] nonprofit theatre, the Broadway space, and the commercial space.
"I'm following in the footsteps of the great Lynn Riggs, who had many plays on Broadway back in the beginning of the last century," FastHorse continued, referencing the only other known Native Broadway playwright, whose six shows include Green Grow the Lilacs, famously adapted into Oklahoma! "My goal and prayer is that it doesn't take the next century for our next Native American playwright to be on Broadway."
Right play, right time
So, in short, The Thanksgiving Play is relevant now because it welcomes everyone into timely conversations around racial reeducation, amplifies the work of Native theatremakers, and has helped the actors grow right alongside audiences. And yet, Foley admitted he still had "no idea" if it was the right time to be doing The Thanksgiving Play. Good intentions aside, would audiences be receptive to entertainment that asks them to look inward, or would they shut off like he almost did?
He hopes not. "I've learned that I'm supposed to be uncomfortable; I've learned that people want me to be uncomfortable," Foley said. "I've learned that I'm not alone in that and that it's okay [ ] to have conversations that I've never felt okay having before."
The first Thanksgiving might not have been a friendly, inclusive kumbaya. But The Thanksgiving Play invites everyone to the table to learn and grow — and feast on some delicious comic performances while they're at it.
Top image credit: D'Arcy Carden, Chris Sullivan, Katie Finneran, and Scott Foley in The Thanksgiving Play. (Photos by Joan Marcus)
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