Urbanite Theatre's meta holiday play skillfully mocks the failed attempts at politically correct theater
Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” is the greatest send-up of Thanksgiving since “Addams Family Values.” The Native American playwright roasts the comforting narrative of Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a feast and fellowship. More importantly, FastHorse knocks the stuffing out of well-meaning attempts to create a politically correct spin on the celebration.
We’re talking theater about theater. The play revolves around the well-meaning attempt to create a culturally “woke” Thanksgiving pageant in a public elementary school.
Logan (Genevieve Simon) is the driving force behind this drama. She’s an achingly sensitive theater teacher/director struggling to keep her job in the public school system. (She recently staged a third grade version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” Unhappy parents are now circulating a petition to get her fired.) As a devout vegan, Logan despises the notion of killing turkeys. But she hopes her 45-minute Thanksgiving spectacular will change the parents’ hearts and minds. Thanks to a grant, the playlet must also tip its Pilgrim hat to Native American Heritage Month.
Logan’s boyfriend, Jaxton (Paul Michael Thomson), assists her in this valiant, self-contradictory effort. He’s an actor (AKA street performer), a yoga aficionado, a dramaturge (whatever that is) and a fellow bleeding heart. (He gifts Logan with a jar “made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.”) Caden (Eric Leonard) is the third member of the troupe. He’s a wannabe playwright and an obsessive-compulsive history teacher who wants to start the play around the time of Stonehenge. What could possibly go wrong?
Casting, that’s what. To honor the grant, they have to give Native Americans a voice. That requires hiring a Native American actor, natch. But according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they can’t make race part of the job description. So they send out a call for a Native American part. They hire Alicia (Clare Lopez) because she’s wearing a American Indian headdress in her headshot. She must be native, right? Wrong. It’s one of Alicia’s many ethnic personas, including Mexican and Middle Eastern. This doesn’t emerge until improvised rehearsals are well underway. Now it’s too late to find an actual Native American actor. But if Logan casts Alicia in an indigenous role, that’d be “red-face.” What the hell do they do?
What they do is talk. A granular discussion ensues worthy of medieval scholasticism at its most obtuse. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Tough question, sure. But it’s nothing compared to: “How can four white actors give a voice to the voiceless Native American community without speaking for them?”
FastHorse sprinkles her savvy satire with cringe-worthy snippets of actual Thanksgiving school pageants. Horrific historical tidbits include the massacre of the Pequot people in 1637 and a racist verse from “Home on the Range.” But Pilgrims, pioneers and pageants aren’t her main target.
FastHorse’s eye is on the good intentions of earnest, clueless, white theater people. According to the playwright, “The Thanksgiving Play” is a send-up of “the liberal, well-meaning, white theater world. People are trying so hard to do the right thing, trying so hard to be diverse, trying so hard to include everybody that they just become paralyzed.”
As the Victorians liked to say, “If you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one.” FastHorse mocks the four white actors who try. But there’s no hate to her hilarity.
Larissa Lury directs FastHorse’s send-up with the snappy rhythm of “Portlandia” or “Parks and Recreation.” The result is biting comedy that’s never bitter. As goofy as they are, the characters are lovable.
Simon’s director thinks too much and cares too much. Lopez’s vapid L.A. actress is her perfectly vapid mirror image. The Zen state of “no-mind” comes naturally to her. Simon’s street performer flips between self-doubt and overconfidence with squirrely intensity. Leonard’s nerdy historian is slow to grasp that actual history has no place in a school history play.
FastHorse’s spoof comes to life with inspired creative touches. Frank Chavez’s pitch-perfect classroom set is a bright, happy space with a safe room and “Imagine!” painted on the wall. Joseph P. Oshry’s lighting design keeps things bright, even when the tone gets dark. Dee Sullivan’s costumes capture each character’s self-image — and skewer the low-budget depictions of pilgrims and Native Americans in public schools across the land.
So how do you put on a politically correct Thanksgiving pageant for kids?
For an extended answer, see the play.
Short version: You don’t.