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The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse, recently produced by Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, is a satirical play about navigating the difficult challenges of teaching children about the uncomfortable truth of Thanksgiving. FastHorse is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation of South Dakota and wrote this play to dismantle the American mythology and whitewashing of Thanksgiving. FastHorse came up with the idea for the play in response to the dated and often offensive theatrical depictions of the origins of Thanksgiving. To illustrate this point, the different scenes are broken up by a trio of women who sing real and distasteful children’ nursery rhymes.
The story focuses on Logan, a drama teacher tasked with creating a Thanksgiving play that honors an American holiday and Native American Heritage Month. The all-White group the teacher gathers consists of an elementary history teacher new to theatre, a hired actress from LA who uses her darker features to find more ethnic roles, and a sidewalk-performing yoga enthusiast.
All of the actors embodied their characters well. Logan, played by Alex Rowland, was your typical enthusiastic go-getting teacher whose bright personality matched her outfit and vibrantly colored classroom setting. Rowland played Alex as the most stressed of the group, routinely taking her hair down just to put it back up again. As Caden, the history teacher, Andrew Wilson embodied his mannerisms so well that he reminded me of my own elementary school history teacher. It was even scary how middle-aged the student actor seemed at times. Wilson played Caden a maturity that contrasted the character of Jaxon. Clayton Paiges’ performance as Jaxton was sassy and dramatic when compared to other productions' depictions of the character. His high energy and unembarrassed personality seemed to give the other characters the confidence to be goofy on stage.
When the performance started, I did not care for the character of Alicia. Her superficial attitude and lack of social awareness made her unlikable. By the end of the play, however, she was my favorite character. This is a testament to understudy Sydney Bubb, who beautifully played a perfunctory air-headed actress who, at one point, looks at the ceiling because it is “fun.”
The setting of the play was an elementary school classroom centered in a black box theatre with the first few rows of seats roped off. I appreciated that this show was performed without masks. COVID-19 almost put a halt to the performing arts entirely. It was refreshing to see the cast interact without masks. The expressions of the actors would have been lost in the face coverings and it was a delight not to miss them.
The irony falls when the cast realizes that they do not have anyone of color to play a Native American. The hyper-political correctness of the cast highlights how complex and impossible it is to construct a play about Indigenous People without the input of one. The exaggerated woke dialogue in the play is a great analogy of how ineffective woke culture can be. The cast is sensitive to offending anyone but humorously fails to recognize their own offensive acts. For example, the group exoticizes Alicia and then are frustrated when they find out she is not Native American. They also request that Caden, the historian, tailor history to fit their production.
The main theme of A Thanksgiving Play focuses on the privilege that people have and do not recognize, specifically White people. FastHorse wrote this play for an all-White cast and it felt appropriately fitting to be performed at Appalachian State, a university that boasts of their 18% diversity rather than their 82% White student base. In turn, the play cheekily pays homage to Native American Heritage Month in a way that highlights problematic aspects of the Thanksgiving holiday and offers the audience an opportunity to reflect on our country’s dark past using a critical modern lens. The Department of Theatre and Dance put this challenge to recognize privilege into practice by acknowledging the Valborg Theatre itself was built on previously Indigenous land. In this way, they recognized and graciously extended their privilege to share with us a play about what it means to appropriately exercise that same privilege.
FastHorse’s conclusion is for the cast not to produce a play entirely because it is impossible to create a non-offensive Thanksgiving play. The hilarious irony of the ending is that the group of White people, who set out to help aid the conversation surrounding Indigenous People, in turn, produced nothing at all that will be helpful to that demographic. Too often, woke art is about performative activism, rather than attempting to accomplish anything. This play beautifully demonstrates the ineffectiveness of all-White activism, while simultaneously helping to correct the Thanksgiving narrative.