Larissa FastHorse lives her life among “well-meaning white people.” You’ve met them. Heck, most of us probably are them. The white liberals that make up the majority of Broadway audiences are exactly the people the Sicangu Lakota playwright is taking to task for acts of “performative wokeness” in The Thanksgiving Play.
“It’s one of the most dangerous things I see, because it stops us from having any real conversation and any real dialogue,” she says of the habit. So many times, FastHorse has watched people with good intentions do damage because they spent more time trying to look like better people instead of actually being better people. We’re all guilty of it in today’s environment. Think of all the times you’ve made a social media post about a social issue instead of, well, donating money or taking any kind of concrete action.
FastHorse is making her Broadway debut this spring with The Thanksgiving Play. It begins previews March 23 at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre, with an opening night of April 20. In doing so, she becomes the first known Native American female playwright to have a show produced on Broadway. Though as Fasthorse points out, it’s hard to fact-check such a claim: “I assume there have been others, but for various reasons—for safety, for government assimilation policies—people hadn’t identified that way in the past.”
The only other known Indigenous playwright in Broadway history is Cherokee Lynn Riggs. He debuted in 1927 and had six plays on the Main Stem before his death in 1954. He is most known for his 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, the source material for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! And even though the dialogue for the musical adaptation is, in several places, word for word and scene for scene straight from the original play, Riggs was not credited as book writer.
That erasure of Native voices is addressed in FastHorse’s play, one she refers to as “a comedy within a satire.” The story centers on a group of four people—a high school drama teacher, an elementary school history teacher, and two actors—who are tasked with creating a Thanksgiving Pageant for their local elementary school that will also celebrate Native American Heritage Month.
Did we mention that all four of them are white?
As the group begins to devise the pageant, they stumble over themselves to be politically correct. And in the struggle to not offend (and to prove how “woke” they each are), they begin to remove all Native-ness from the play. Their intentions get the best of them, and instead of having the hard conversations with the right people, they whittle the story of America’s first peoples away to nothing.
The Thanksgiving Play was written in 2015 and made its New York premiere in 2018 Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. A lot has happened in the last eight years. The country is now on its third president since then. Then there was the COVID-19 pandemic that threw the theatre industry into upheaval with first a shutdown, and then a social reckoning addressing the inequities of racial representation on and off stage.
FastHorse, one of the signers of 2020’s We See You, White American Theater open letter, has seen a bit of an evolution in that time. “I think the well-meaning white folks have become more aware of being well-meaning without action,” says FastHorse. “And I appreciate that. Unfortunately, performative wokeness has gone way up.” While the playwright recognizes that Covid definitely had a hand in limiting the actions people have been capable of taking, she also emphasizes that a social media post is not remotely enough: “I’ve seen a lot of great Instagram posts. It’s lovely. But if you don’t back that up with some sort of action, some sort of people-to-people relationship and act of service, then I fear you’re in my play.”
In an instance of life horrifyingly imitating art, FastHorse tells of a recent planned university production of The Thanksgiving Play that grew contentious when local Native Americans wanted to be involved. Rather than listening to them and including them, those “well-meaning white folks” cancelled the production altogether. “Apparently you haven’t read the play because you are living it. Now there’s nothing. There is a big vacuum of emptiness happening instead,” says FastHorse. “The Native people were really excited about it. But the well-meaning white folk and performative wokeness—they tried to look good and then they just exited the whole situation when it became not what they wanted it to be.”
For the Broadway run of The Thanksgiving Play, FastHorse has revisited the script and made a few updates to reflect some of the changes in our world since 2015. But even without those rewrites, the play was written as “a director’s play,” so each production has the tendency to be wildly different from others.
“I wanted there to be a lot of freedom and a lot of collaboration,” says FastHorse. There are scenes designed for a director or a choreographer to make their own, such as physical scenes with no dialogue and cringeworthy interstitial pageant scenes (all collected from internet Pinterest boards of elementary school teachers, who still alarmingly think it’s OK to paint children’s faces with red, yellow, and black stripes meant to mimic war paint). The director putting her own spin on the Broadway premiere is Hadestown Tony winner Rachel Chavkin.
The entire creative team for The Thanksgiving Play on Broadway are people of color, and several have close ties with Native American communities—with the exception of Chavkin, who identifies as white. But FastHorse is comfortable with that. “I keep telling Rachel she’s our secret weapon to understanding the white liberal mind,” she says with a laugh. “In the play, the characters are basically turning themselves into pretzels trying to do the right thing, and yet always doing the wrong thing. Rachel herself has had some problems in the past navigating issues as a white woman, and she’s been very generous sharing her perspective and how she’s learned and grown and changed.”
In 2017, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, which earned Chavkin her first Tony nod for direction, ran up against a problem of racial optics in a recasting situation. Josh Groban, who had originated the role of Pierre, ended his run and was replaced by Black actor Okieriete Onaodowan, known at the time for playing Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the original company of Hamilton. Ticket sales plummeted with Groban’s departure and the production opted to cut Onaodowan’s run short, replacing him with Mandy Patinkin. Negative social media discourse around the replacing of a Black actor with a white actor led to Patinkin withdrawing and the show’s early closure.
“Rachel is a great collaborator and an ally,” says FastHorse, saying that the pair quickly got past any awkwardness or apology for any lingering white guilt. Chavkin has sought to heighten the Native erasure present in the script and has lead the design team to lean into the idea of “overbearing whiteness” for the show’s overall aesthetic.
“It’s still a very funny play, but there’s a brutality to the way she’s going for the satire that’s really cool and beautiful, and very cinematic in a way that I haven’t seen before,” FastHorse says of Chavkin’s vision for The Thanksgiving Play.
Another fun element for this production is that the pageant scenes will all be filmed with children, fulfilling FastHorse’s long-held wish to see children belting out lyrics like, “On the fifth day of Thanksgiving, the Natives gave to me: Five pairs of moccasins, four bows and arrows, three Native headdresses, two turkey gobblers, and a pumpkin in a pumpkin patch.”
But for FastHorse, as exciting as this Broadway debut is, it’s also a burden. “I don’t want it to be another 90 years for the next one. I don’t want to mess it up and we just get to do one every century!” she exclaims. “Not just for creators, but also for audiences. Broadway hasn’t been a familiar space for Native people.” The stories just haven’t ever been produced. In fact, FastHorse has often said that she wrote The Thanksgiving Play for white actors when she had trouble getting scripts with Native characters produced—companies often citing the lack of Indigenous actors available or even Indigenous audiences as reasoning.
Those ideas are blatantly wrong, though, says FastHorse. Native American communities exist and they often want to engage with work about and for them. But building trust with those communities takes effort, says FastHorse. “A lot of times, theatres just say, ‘Well, I invited them. They didn’t show up.’ But you have to show up, as well, and be a part of that community and show how you can be of service and be a good guest in their spaces. And that takes time.”
That is why Second Stage, in conjunction with Princeton University, is working to create programs around The Thanksgiving Play that will welcome more Native Americans into its audience—including ticket initiatives to access for local Native American groups and elders and panels with scholars and artists to introduce other contemporary Indigenous artists to Broadway artists.
Anything less would actually just be performative.
And as Broadway is still building audiences that aren't exclusively white, there may be an occasional joke in the script that non-Native folks won’t necessarily get—something just for the Indigenous folks. For the well-meaning white folks in the room, FastHorse leaves this parting thought: “You’re allowed to not get every joke. And that’s OK. But you do get to be there for the ride, which was created with you in mind. I hope you have both a great night out at the theatre. But also, perhaps, learn something. I want you to leave with more questions than you knew you had to ask.”