Patrick Alred, Katie Van Zile, Bailey Story, & Stasia Schaum in The Thanksgiving Play. photo: Bunbury
The Thanksgiving Play
By Larissa Fasthorse
Directed by Morgan Schussler-Williams
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
White creators have been in control of non-white narratives in Western cultures for as long as recorded history but rarely did those white writers attempt to actually understand their subject, preferring to mythologize People of Color as first immoral and savage and then, as a corrective, as overly pious and reverent. In Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, a group of white theatre artists endeavors to craft a Politically Correct version of the first Thanksgiving, only to find that even with the best intentions, they may not be up to the challenge.
Of course, they think they are. Logan (Stasia Schaum) is an elementary school teacher with a grant to create a new presentation on the First Thanksgiving for Native American Heritage Month. To that end, she has hired Alicia (Katie Van Zile) a professional actor whose Native American background is assumed.
That assumption is the first satirical broadside directed at the Well-Meaning White Liberal (WMWL), a much maligned species in recent years, as it has come to be seen as part of the problem. Logan and her team, Jaxton (Bailey Story), an actor-volunteer with whom she is romantically involved, and Caden (Patrick Alred) another, academically-minded volunteer who comes with an overstuffed binder of research worthy of Leslie Knope, are all so determinedly earnest in their efforts as to be unerringly foolish.
Playwright Fasthorse is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Lakota Nation, whose other work has been about Indigenous Peoples of the United States, so her study of white ancestors of immigrants is pointed and funny, the kind of satire that can be mistaken for genial situation comedy. Director Morgan Schussler-Williams expresses a good deal of understanding in her director’s notes, and she has directed her cast to a pace and pitch just shy of farce, so the production is entertaining, yet Fasthorse’s text seems to depend on those director’s notes to fully realize its point. While I abhor blunt and overstated themes, I couldn’t help but feel that the play needed just a tad bit of clarity. An audience will enjoy the comedy but will they fully appreciate the satire?
There is a perfectly and appropriately mundane school building set built with an eye to detail by John Finnegan, and the other design work is functional but the play doesn’t ask for much more in the costumes and lighting. These are ordinary people dressed casually, although Bailey Story’s clothing says a lot about his overbearing PC mindset.
As Jaxton, Story is the most forceful and deeply felt performance, and Kate Van Zile does a good job with Alicia’s Hollywood concentration on her looks and sexual appeal. She enjoys being objectified, making a sharp ontrast to the idealistic Logan and Jaxton. Patrick Alred nicely underplays Caden’s nerdiness and emerging confidence, although his timing and delivery needed a slight sharpening, and Stasia Schaum perfectly embodies Logan’s zealous commitment to equity and correcting injustice, although I felt the performance was overemphatic.
Avoid the director’s notes at your own peril, lest you miss the point and find your attitude exactly that of the WMWL the play is lampooning, but Fasthorse’s satire doesn’t cut very deep, so audiences can easily embrace The Thanksgiving Play as solid family entertainment. Hopefully, they will engage deeply enough to comprehend the mirror that is being held up.
The Thanksgiving Play is scheduled to be produced on Broadway in 2023.
The Thanksgiving Play
October 6, 7, 8, 13.14. & 15 @ 7:30 pm
October 9, & 16 @ 2:00 pm
The Henry Clay Theatre
604 S. 3rd Street,
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.