Stepping in the Kitchen Theatre Company for the first time, the staff kindly greeted me and sat me in the audience. I was face to face with the show’s set: a classroom complete with blocks, cubbies and a snack table.
The set’s backdrop struck me as a computer screen was projected on a large chalkboard. I heard Thanksgiving songs set to childhood tunes as I watched the screen full of cartoon turkeys and pilgrims. One song on the screen focused on the “friendship” between pilgrims and Native Americans. The audience could tell before the show even began what issue the play would grapple with: the truths of Thanksgiving.
The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse centers on four adults attempting to make a culturally sensitive play for elementary schoolers about Thanksgiving while celebrating Native American Heritage Month.
FastHorse writes the play in a unique way by ingraining comedy at its core. In a 2018 interview in Playwrights Horizon, FastHorse said, “… many Americans prefer to hold on to fond memories of favorite history teachers and novels and movies and summer vacations even if they are based on lies. So I’ve changed tactics with this play. I wrote a really funny comedy.” FastHorse delivered on this statement as the audience howled with laughter throughout the show. For instance, the actors performed the racist “Ten Little Indians” nursery song at the show’s start, where the actors gave their all as they raced around the stage. There was deliberate, repetitive blocking for each segment of the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme. Due to the extensivity of the song, the characters are seen to be worn out by the closing of the song. The most worn out was Caden (Matthew Boston), who is seen noticeably panting at the closing after you see him increasingly crumble with exhaustion as he ran around the stage throughout the song. Caden was a fan favorite for comedic timing in the show.
Caden was an elementary school history teacher whose largest dream was to be a playwright. He brought hundreds of pages of dialogue he wrote for the show to the first rehearsal, and tears up when “real actors” read one of his scenes for the first time. What would seem like a trivial moment to any ordinary person propelled this grown man to cry and remark that the ultimate goal of his life has finally been achieved. Director Margarett Perry crafts this moment perfectly as Caden takes a moment to collect himself, and the other characters freeze to give Caden silence. It was comedic gold.
Since the play featured only four adults, the play allowed the audience to focus on the actors. Logan (Ginna Hoben) is a teacher with the task of leading the other three adults in writing the self-devised piece. Logan is a hilarious woman who becomes extremely stressed throughout the play on how to create a culturally sensitive piece as a white woman. Alicia (Maggie Lou Rader), a Los Angeles actress, makes her entrance by waltzing into the scene with a pink plastic water bottle, and immediately demonstrates the airhead persona her character emits for the remainder of the play. The audience can see the stark contrast of the characterization of Alicia and Logan as Alicia strolls through the piece in a fluid manner, whereas Logan has rigid motions to display her stressed persona. Logan hires Alicia to stand as the Native American point of view for the show. However, after minutes of the adults carefully asking for her “unique perspective,” Alicia reveals that she is in fact not Native American and simply has various headshots that make her appear as different ethnicities, as Alicia says her look is “very flexible.” Maggie Lou Rader delivers this surprise beautifully and comedically by showing her character’s indifference to this typical Hollywood tactic, communicating that this is typical Hollywood behavior. Upon discovery of Alicia’s ethnicity, Logan becomes distraught as she used a Native American grant to hire Alicia. Logan is now left with the hard truth that four white people must devise a show honoring Native Americans.
Representation is a pressing issue in American theater. White people are cast as minority characters in place of actual minority actors, plays –– especially classics like Shakespeare’s plays –– focus on the white perspective and shun other points of view. The show demonstrates the intricacies of creating a piece about indigenous people with no real Native American perspective.
Throughout the play, the scenes are split with small interjections of projections on the screen’s backdrop, similar to those before the play’s start. The small scenes depict the racist perceptions of Thanksgiving taught to youth by displaying educators’ Thanksgiving lessons on the screen, demonstrating numerous problematic lessons. One projection had a teacher’s comment on a Thanksgiving lesson saying “For fun, try having students say ‘Injun’ instead of Indian. My students loved it.”
The show strays away from educating much about the facts of Thanksgiving, but rather demonstrates how vital the Indigenous perspective is and the flaws of how Thanksgiving is taught in the United States. The actors communicate this idea by stressing the humor of their characters through large movements and overzealous behavior to show the ridiculousness of their devised show, rather than have serious characters who communicate facts.
To end, Logan finds an uncomplicated solution: nothingness. She says the play will have no characters, lines or set, but will simply be nothing but an empty space. She says no more rehearsals are needed. Logan finds that it is impossible to create a play with no Native American representation so the play must be empty. Logan widens her arms as if hugging air, and encourages the other characters to do the same so they can embrace the nothingness. As Logan corrals support for this idea, the characters soak it in and obsess over it. It felt like the trajectory of the play was building towards something larger, but perhaps that was what FastHorse wanted the play to feel like.
A lively and well-comedically timed play, The Thanksgiving Play ended performances on Nov. 21. I encourage you to see the Kitchen Theatre’s upcoming shows in their upcoming season.
Gillian Lee is a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected]