What’s a playwright to do when theater groups say they can’t produce your plays because they can’t find Native American actors for the Native American roles you’ve written? For writer Larissa FastHorse, the answer was easy.
She penned “The Thanksgiving Play” — a play about a play of the first Thanksgiving, in which all the characters are … white.
What could possibly be awkward about that? As it turns out, all 90 minutes of it. And American theater audiences are eating it up.
In one of the most performed plays of the year, FastHorse — a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and a 2020 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner — lampoons “performative white wokeness” via her story of four white theater artists devising a school play to honor Indigenous people. The progressive characters’ careful-not-to-offend sensibilities leads their fictional group to omit Native American characters from their play altogether. Hilarity and horror ensue, all told through language of great white guilt and more than a dash of discomfort.
Santa Rosa’s acclaimed Left Edge Theatre company is producing the play live via Zoom just in time for the holiday — yes, the very same one with the turkey, stuffing, and problematic history.
“The play’s conceit is very funny and clever, but also subversive,” says Left Edge Theatre Artistic Director Argo Thompson. That’s a good match for a troupe whose mission is to produce new, lesser-known works that are both “left and edgy.”
The show was picked last fall for Left Edge’s current season by the company’s own audience. In an innovative tactic to engage with their patrons, the Left Edge team presents a showcase of scenes from 10 plays as possibilities for the upcoming season, and the audience votes on a lineup of five to produce at full length. “
Glen Ellen resident and local theater critic Jeanie K. Smith is switching up her typical role to direct “The Thanksgiving Play.” Smith has been interested in FastHorse’s work since she reviewed a production of her play “Cow Pie Bingo” in 2018.
“‘Cow Pie Bingo’ was so quirky, sweet, funny, and smart,” says Smith. “When I read ‘The Thanksgiving Play,’ I thought, ‘This is brilliant — insanely good.’” Smith has always had a taste for theater that pushes the envelope. She wrote a doctoral dissertation on feminist performance art of the ’70s and ’80s, which she describes as “so fabulously different and political, intriguing and weird.” She has also worked in and enjoyed another form of courageous theater: being a drama teacher for middle schoolers.
Consistent through her roles — from scholar to teacher to critic — is her belief that good theater is “its own consciousness-raising event” and “has the power to create better human beings.”
And while “The Thanksgiving Play” has gotten some criticism for the lack of solutions it presents, Smith rejects the idea, believing the problem-solving falls on the viewer.
“The play is just the beginning,” she says, referencing a FastHorse interview. It’s in the new perspectives and conversations that happen after the show where the “messy” work of meaningful change happens.
Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play from Left Edge Theatre, streaming live November 6-15 and on demand November 16-29. Tickets $10-$30. 707-546-3600 or leftedgetheatre.com/tickets.