In Larissa FastHorse’s sharp-edged satire “The Thanksgiving Play,” a particular subset of cultural species — socially conscious white liberals — are given a skewering. You know the type. They prattle on about hot yoga, macrobiotic and vegan diets, and locally sourced food and clothes. They see themselves as enlightened “allies” who are careful to “check their privilege” and strive to be politically “woke.” At the same time, their condescension can be cringe-worthy, and they can come across as tone-deaf and obtuse as they desperately twist themselves into knots to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing.
In a recent conversation, FastHorse — an indigenous playwright and member of the Sicangu Lakota nation of South Dakota — says the satire is drawn from “all of these bizarre, crazy, offensive, strange experiences I encounter as an indigenous person in contemporary society.”
As a longtime resident of Santa Monica, Calif., FastHorse lives in the epicenter of what she calls “performative wokeness.”
“My lovely, well-meaning friends will do things up to the point where they still feel good about themselves. But if they start to feel uncomfortable or ‘de-centered’ or they could be in danger of being wrong, they pull back immediately, under the guise of, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend’ or ‘It’s not my place.’ But it’s like, no, white people, we need you. You need to be out there. You need to be figuring out how you can screw up and make mistakes and take a hit.”
In the play, getting a production at the Lyric Stage Company Oct. 18-Nov. 10, a troupe of performers, writers, and teaching artists are valiantly straining to create a culturally sensitive “devised” work of theater, aimed at an elementary school audience, that simultaneously celebrates the American national holiday while also honoring Native American Heritage Month.
The group includes Logan, an earnest, anxiety-ridden high school drama teacher who’s leading the proceedings; her boyfriend, Jaxton, a self-proclaimed “vegan ally” and yoga-loving street performer who plies his trade at the local farmers’ market; Caden, a third-grade teacher and theater-loving history geek who moonlights as an amateur playwright and is over the moon about a group of adults actually performing his work; and Alicia, a not-so-bright actress whose recent job was understudying Jasmine in “Aladdin” at Disneyland.
Jaxton, who has a hippie drawl, gives Logan a gift on the first day of rehearsal — a Mason jar “made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.” Logan is a teaching artist whose recent production of “The Iceman Cometh” led 300 parents to sign a petition calling for her removal. With the help of a Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art grant, Logan has hired Alicia to provide “the Native perspective” in the room. But is she actually indigenous?
FastHorse is “satirizing white liberals who are so aware of the notion of white privilege that it can actually be paralyzing, as well as our desire to be so empathetic with people who are different from ourselves that sometimes we just get caught up in a kind of cycle of inauthenticity,” says Scott Edmiston, who’s directing the Lyric production and serves as dean of theater at Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
He relishes the lampooning of amateur theater artists and the seriousness with which they take themselves. It reminds him, he says, of the eccentric characters populating the 1996 Christopher Guest mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman,” which centers on a community theater troupe putting on a historical pageant about their small town. In “The Thanksgiving Play,” the characters, Edmiston says, “are very serious and very excited about putting on a very meaningful play about the oppression of the indigenous people. But their skill set, their capacity, isn’t necessarily united with their artistic aspirations, and Larissa has some fun with that.”
The comedy is “the sugar that makes the medicine go down,” FastHorse says. “You’re going to see a mirror put up to yourself. I think nobody escapes my play without some joke getting aimed at them.”
“The Thanksgiving Play” is the first work by a Native American playwright to appear on American Theatre Magazine’s annual survey of the year’s most produced plays at regional theaters nationwide. It grew out of FastHorse’s frustration with theaters turning down her work because, she was told, they couldn’t find any indigenous actors for the roles. (Her other plays include “What Would Crazy Horse Do?,” “Urban Rez,” and “Average Family”). So she set herself the task of writing a play that theaters couldn’t reject, one with four white characters and only one setting.
“It’s my most depressing success,” she says with a laugh. “If you can’t produce this, then our issues are greater than casting. Our issues are actually not wanting to talk about Native American stories on your stages. So the good news is that people are producing it, and that’s awesome.”
Like most Americans, FastHorse loves Thanksgiving, at least the conceptual idea of a day dedicated to gratitude and family and sharing a meal with people you love. But when she began researching the holiday’s dubious historical origins, of which she’d been vaguely aware, she discovered that the details we learned in grade school are exaggerated and fictionalized.
It’s true that in 1621, the year after the Pilgrims (who called themselves Separatists) arrived in Massachusetts, they celebrated a successful harvest with a gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag nation. Of course, that was followed by years of bloodshed, genocide, and the systematic destruction of a people.
In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday, hoping to unite Americans at a time when the country was deeply divided. “We co-opted this basic concept, created a mythology, and we still celebrate that mythology today,” she says.
FastHorse hopes her satire prompts people to “question what you read in the books, question who told the story.”
A former dancer who transitioned into a writing career in her 30s, FastHorse says her goal is to “change the field” of theater itself and help “open doors” for other indigenous writers and artists. “And theater is one of the few places they can come and learn what it’s actually like to be a native person,” she says.
“It’s amazing to me that American theaters are willing to embrace [‘The Thanksgiving Play’] and laugh at themselves. When I first wrote it, I thought: ‘There’s no way anyone’s ever going to produce this.’ But I’ve pleasantly been proven wrong.”
The Thanksgiving Play
Presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Oct. 18-Nov. 10. Tickets start at $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com.Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at [email protected]