Why to see 'The Thanksgiving Play' on Broadway

Learn more about the cast, playwright, and production history of this acclaimed satire, now making its Broadway debut with Second Stage Theater from March 25.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The holiday season is coming early with Larissa FastHorse's The Thanksgiving Play, and that's something to celebrate. This piercing satire follows a makeshift theatre troupe's attempt to create an educational Thanksgiving play. They have to be sure it's elementary school-appropriate, entertaining, and, most importantly, accurate and respectful of Native American perspectives on the holiday. But their major problem — especially regarding that last task — is that all four actors are white.

As The Thanksgiving Play is a newer show, audiences may have questions before making their own pilgrimage to the Hayes Theater. Who is Larissa FastHorse? Which celebrities are in the cast? Why is a show about Thanksgiving going up in March? Read on for answers to those questions and more, plus fun facts about the show.

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The Thanksgiving Play on Broadway features a star-studded cast.

FastHorse's play may be about clueless amateur actors, but the stars playing them on Broadway are anything but. Theatregoers can see two Emmy nominees on stage: D'Arcy Carden, making her Broadway debut after achieving onscreen fame in The Good Place and A League of Their Own, and Chris Sullivan, a two-time nominee for his role as Toby Damon on This Is Us.

Veteran screen actor Scott Foley, who's had roles in Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, Scrubs, and The Big Leap, joins the roster of TV stars. Rounding out the cast is Broadway veteran Katie Finneran, who's won two Tony Awards for Promises, Promises and Noises Off.

As a bonus, this delicious cast of actors is directed by Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin, who's also behind the fan-favorite shows Hadestown and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

The show isn't Thanksgiving-specific.

You might be wondering why a show called The Thanksgiving Play is happening in the spring, months away from Thanksgiving. The plot, after all, is about four actors creating an elementary school Thanksgiving pageant.

But the show isn't really about that pageant or Thanksgiving — the play explores broader themes of white "wokeness," racism, and the way history is told and preserved. FastHorse challenges: When does trying too hard to be politically correct actually do nothing or actively do harm? And how can people accurately uplift different cultures without including the voices of people from those cultures?

Playwright Larissa FastHorse is making Broadway history.

With The Thanksgiving Play, FastHorse becomes the first known female Native American writer to have a play go up on Broadway. She is also only the second known Native American Broadway playwright in history! The other is Lynn Riggs, a man of Cherokee descent who had six plays on Broadway between 1927 and 1950. The most famous is Green Grow the Lilacs, which was later adapted into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!

The Thanksgiving Play was inspired, in part, by FastHorse's own experiences.

The Native American experience informs FastHorse's work; most of her plays feature Indigenous characters. But she has said in interviews that multiple theatre companies interested in producing her work didn't do so for a consistent reason: they couldn't find Native American actors.

FastHorse took their response as a challenge and wrote The Thanksgiving Play. The show explores Native American themes without requiring Native actors. With The Thanksgiving Play, FastHorse lightly jabs the theatre institutions that, potentially, aren't looking hard enough for Indigenous talent. But at the same time, she highlights the importance of supporting and building up pools of Native talent — so Native people can be in the rooms where their stories are being told — and the consequences that of doing so.

Another tidbit of the show inspired by real-life events: FastHorse has her characters suggest multiple well-intentioned, but ultimately offensive, teaching activities to include in the pageant. FastHorse found all the activities she wrote into The Thanksgiving Play — including role-playing, songs, and more — on real teacher-resource hubs and curricula online.

The Thanksgiving Play received critical acclaim off Broadway.

Playwrights Horizons premiered The Thanksgiving Play in 2018, and critics ate it up. A four-star New York Theatre Guide review points out, "Failed attempts to humanely represent indigenous peoples and the insane assumptions we have of Native Americans... are roadblocks in truthfully telling the Thanksgiving story, as to tell it truthfully, it would be covered in blood."

The New York Times critic wrote, "The ridiculous agonizing of the four 'teaching artists' produces brutal laughs at the expense of well-meaning liberals who conceal ordinary prejudice under the mask of 'performative wokeness.' They want to help but in their fear of offending are the least helpful of all."

As The Thanksgiving Play's themes have only acquired more urgency and attention since the show's premiere, theatregoers are sure to feast on this comedy on Broadway, too — and perhaps learn something along the way.

Get The Thanksgiving Play tickets now.

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