Theatre tip: just use white people

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Jeff Marlow, Noah Bean, Alexandra Henrikson, and Samantha Sloyan. Photo credit: Jeff Lorch

There’s a problem with school Thanksgiving plays.

But not in the particular high school drama classroom you can see onstage at the Geffen.  Logan, the drama teacher, is finally getting to make her Thanksgiving school play and it’s going to right those wrongs.  She’s gotten the diversity grant that’s going to pay to bring an actress all the way from Los Angeles.  And not just any actress, an actual indigenous person (imagine that!). That’s going to bring a level of cultural authenticity and sensitivity to this production . . . or so Logan thinks.

That’s the setup for playwright Larissa Fasthorse’s searingly dark satire “The Thanksgiving Play.”

In the classroom on the first day of rehearsal things quickly take a turn for the worse.  Yes, Logan’s got her partner Jaxton there with her. He’s a brilliantly stereotypical actor yoga dude.  While he is a cis-white guy he is deeply aware of both his privilege and his chakras. Which is why he’s so excited to work with a professional from LA and someone who can speak to the Indian, no native American experience.  They are just so excited to hold space for this level of diversity.

But then… enter Alicia, the LA actress - who, turns out,  isn’t indigenous at all! (Logan fell for her ethnic headshot.)  This is terrible. How can they possibly devise a theatre piece that sensitively gives voice to the indigenous experience and tell the real story of Thanksgiving - with four white people!


Welcome to the American Theatre. 

Larissa Fasthorse skewers white allies, hollow diversity initiatives, educational theatre, and the Pilgrims in her 90 minute dark comedy.  While it’s played as farce it cuts close to the bone. While the comedy is broad enough for a general audience, if you’re a theatre person - you’ll find yourself cringing with recognition.

And it’s not just the theatre that’s laid bare.  In between scenes of this quartet rehearsing their educational theatre piece the stage goes dark and suddenly a web address is projected from an elementary teacher resource website.  The kind of place a teacher would look for class activities. Then the actors perform one of these fun little Thanksgiving songs - that turn out to be just as cringe worthy. As if that weren’t enough, Ms. Fasthorse quotes helpful little tips like “Teacher’s comment: For fun, try having students sing “Injun” instead of “Indian.” My students loved it.”

Again… ouch.

Ms. Fasthorse is adding to a disturbing but essential body of work by playwrights of color who have found success (and productions) by talking about race using only white actors.  Think Branden Jacob Jenkins “Appropriate” or Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” - to name just two. The plays serve as both condemnation and a sort of conceptual evidence. Not only do they explore the exclusion of representation and the dominance of white, mostly male, stories - through the actual productions they serve as another data point that quietly screams “see, you’ll do the play if it casts white people.”

As good as the Geffen’s production is, and it’s very good, you’ll get ahead of the comedy and the characters will begin to feel like foils for an argument … but no more so than anyone playing an Indian in a school pageant in thousands of schools across the country in the next few weeks.

“The Thanksgiving Play” plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through December 6th.