The version of Thanksgiving most of us were taught in school is certainly problematic. From outdated, disrespectful views of Native Americans and erasure of their role to the generous portrayals of the first white settlers on this continent, the narrative around the whole holiday is due for reexamination. This discussion sets the stage for The Thanksgiving Play, a satirical comedy by Larissa FastHorse currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse.
Logan (Samantha Sloyan), a high school drama teacher, has been awarded a grant to celebrate both Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month by creating an educational and culturally sensitive play to be performed in elementary schools. With the help of Jaxton (Noah Bean), her amateur actor boyfriend, Caden (Jeff Marlow), a fellow teacher and aspiring playwright, and Alicia (Alexandra Henrikson), a professional actress from Los Angeles hired for her supposed Native heritage, they embark on the rehearsal process, during which Logan hopes they can discover the story they want to tell as a collaborative group.
Things devolve pretty quickly. It turns out Alicia is not actually Native American but landed the job thanks to a stereotypical headshot she took at the urging of her agent. Having once worked as the third understudy for Jasmine at Disneyland, the self-described dimwitted actress does not see the problem. Logan, who is already on thin ice with the school board due to her controversial choices (including a recent production of The Iceman Cometh starring 15-year-olds), is horrified, worried about losing funding, respect, and even her job. Both men can’t help but fawn over Alicia, and Caden, who clearly is not used to this much adult social interaction, is a bit overeager to hear “real actors” read his words, even if Jaxton’s biggest claim to fame is as a volunteer street performer at a farmer’s market.
Directed by Michael John Garcés, the performances often seem a bit too broad for the Geffen’s smaller 117-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. But this is satire, after all, and despite the fact that the play is specifically meant to take place anywhere but Los Angeles, this is the exact audience it was written for, and it is doubtful certain jokes had the same impact during the world premiere in New York last year. For example, Logan is not just a vegan but a vegan who feels the need to shame non-vegans, and she is physically grossed out by even the mention of Thanksgiving turkey. Jaxton meditates and mentions how he went by the pronoun “they” for a full year, so, therefore, he thoroughly understands all gender roles. Alicia is a living, breathing Los Angeles actress stereotype used to using her sexuality to get what she wants. And don’t think writers get to escape unscathed, because Caden, with his hundreds of pages of unproduced work and fastidious obsession with preserving the spirit of his words even for an audience of 8-year-olds, is definitely another common type of person you encounter in LA.
FastHorse, who is Native American herself, wrote this play after repeatedly hearing that her other plays featuring Native characters were “too difficult” to cast authentically. The story definitely hits a nerve—white people are so obsessed with being “woke” or culturally sensitive that it often leads to missing the point. Or, even worse, they stop trying to achieve diversity at all, becoming so paralyzed that they revert to the safest, least progressive option. Interstitials throughout the play feature the cast performing horrifyingly tone-deaf Thanksgiving scenes inspired by real examples FastHorse found online, posted by both teachers and parents of students. She’s trying to challenge the concept of the first Thanksgiving as this peaceful melding of two cultures while skewering the white behavior that perpetuates that concept, and this play is certainly successful in doing so.
The Thanksgiving Play is a lot of fun to watch in its tight 90 minutes, and the cast plays off each other wonderfully. Sloyan in particular, though, seems to be giving a performance too big for the space, and the volume at which she speaks is too high to be chalked up to the character’s high-strung, frenetic nature. Particularly given how broad the humor becomes, it would be interesting to see how it would translate on the Geffen’s mainstage or a larger space. FastHorse’s writing is sharp and funny, and would only be made more so with a couple more opportunities to show these characters’ humanity beyond the archetypes they are meant to portray. Alicia’s character, in particular, would have more of an impact if even a couple moments were spent on who she is as a person and what brought her to this random classroom. A recently ended bad relationship is briefly mentioned, but the satire would be even more piercing with just one more layer to round out these characters’ psyches. But overall, this is an enjoyable, challenging, and timely piece, and I am sure many other audience members may, as I did, look back on dressing up as a pilgrim in elementary school and cringe.
The Thanksgiving Play runs through December 6th at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.