EMAV Review: The Thanksgiving Play serves satire and self-awareness at Vegas Theatre Company

★★★☆☆ - Satisfying

On Saturday, October 5th (a mere 59 days before Thanksgiving) seventy local citizens packed the house at Art Square Theatre for the first production of Vegas Theatre Company's 2019/2020 season, The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse.

By comparison, twice as many people -- 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims -- attended the event that Americans commonly call the "First Thanksgiving", as accounted by attendee Edward Winslow. He was among the celebrants at the feast after the Pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World in October 1621, which lasted three days.

Thanksgiving is that most American of holidays: when families gather to celebrate the warmth of home, the bounty of the harvest — and a legacy of genocide and violent colonial expansion. This dramatic work isn't your traditional family's turkey trot. In this satire, teaching artists scramble to celebrate both Turkey Day and Native American Heritage Month...while also quelling their white guilt.

The story is set in an American public school in an unnamed American town. The all-white troupe attempts to create a play about the holiday’s origins that will give due respect to the continent’s Native peoples, often erased by its celebration, and find their efforts thwarted by competing interests, creative differences, and crippling liberal culpability.

This group of four well-meaning people set out to “devise a politically correct school play that can somehow sensitively celebrate both Thanksgiving and Native American Month.” The results are both hilarious and poignant. The play hits on weighty issues such as privilege, representation and appropriation, but never loses its sense of humor as the enthusiastic group tries to achieve the impossible. As the piece progresses, we learn that it is a Native American’s view of Thanksgiving with no Native Americans in it.

The experience begins with the first of several “student sung, musical interludes presented at assemblies,” in front of the curtain. All other scenes are set in a typical classroom, with plenty of fold-out teaching guides, a heavy security door, large chalkboard, and linoleum floor. The production design team effectively transports the audience back to their elementary school days: sets by Alexia Chen; lighting by Andy Killion; costumes by Candice Wynats, and sound by Toby Allen.

Playwright Larissa Fasthorse has pointed out that “The Thanksgiving Play is really about performative wokeness,” or “values signaling” for the sake of your own self-image.

The story makes extensive use of humor as a satirical tool -- with physical humor, the use of statements so absurd that they are comical, and even cheap shots at individuals. The characters always feel as though they are doing something wrong by violating the rules and values imposed on them by society. The troupe is well balanced in this respect. Kelly Hawes (Logan) is appropriately anxious as the ethically correct drama school teacher and director of this play within a play; Amy Lee Reusch (Alicia) is good as the coquettish, contract-bound professional actress from L.A. who can provide the “Native perspective”; Christopher Brown (Jaxton) is effective as the politically overwrought yoga actor; Scott McAdam (Caden) serves as an enthusiastic schoolteacher with theatrical aspirations (and the group’s research man).

The action itself draws on the "comedy of futility" where the underlying premise is that the system itself is so fundamentally broken that no one could hope to change it. The central joke is that these well-meaning educators find their ambitions un-endingly thwarted by the very educational system in which they must "create". They become slaves to cultural mores, so desperate to avoid ridicule that they rarely have the time or will to do anything else.

On the whole, the ensemble’s deportment of hipness and ostentatious political sensitivity are humorous and bear up under the fast-paced farce directed by Daz Weller. However, as caricatures, what’s missing is the very robust , and honest attack on the subject -- the “punch” made even more powerful when the topics of such satire are individuals in society well known, and recognizable, by the audience.

The Thanksgiving Play is an important piece of contemporary dramatic literature that deserves the attention of educators and theatregoers alike and fits within the mission of Vegas Theatre Company to “Be Nevada’s home for compelling theatrical productions that illuminate our shared human experience, awaken our sensibilities about our world, and develop our art form and artists.” The script puts characters onstage that are just like us: earnest, sincere, thoughtful, trying. Really Trying. The beauty of the piece is that it shows us our foibles, lets us laugh at ourselves, and dares us to do better.

The heart and soul of this work are the characters who aren’t on-stage, whose absence is palpable, whose voice is not heard. These are the ones to whom we owe a debt of acknowledgement and respect -- the Northern Paiute, Southern Paiute, Washoe and Western Shoshone. The large and gloriously diverse Indigenous community who have been, and still are, gathered here in Nevada on their traditional lands.

The Thanksgiving Play runs through October 27, 2019 at Vegas Theatre Company.

Larissa FastHorse is a playwright and choreographer from the Sicangu Lakota Nation. As a playwright she has written and produced numerous contributions to Native American drama, plays involving issues with indigenous people in American society and issues in theater.

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