By Maggie McGuire
The Thanksgiving Play, written by Larissa FastHorse, does not actually focus on Thanksgiving. Rather, it follows four white individuals in their attempt to write and devise a culturally-sensitive show for the holiday season. However, the more the characters think about how they will go about putting on their performance, the more they contradict their original intentions of creating something culturally-sensitive. The Thanksgiving Play is FastHorse’s take on her experience in the theater world as a female, Native American playwright and the play deals with the issue of underrepresentation.
The play begins with Logan, Caden, and Jaxton, portrayed by Kat Collin ‘21, Steve Kurdziolek ‘22, and Brendan Higham ‘21 respectively. The three characters are attempting to devise a play that gives a politically correct depiction of Thanksgiving, that honors Native American Heritage Month, and that is also appropriate for elementary school age children, as the play is meant to be performed at the elementary school where Logan works. Hoping for some firsthand Native American representation, Logan hires Alicia, portrayed by Dani Wood ‘24, who Logan believes to be an Indigenous actress. However, after much conversation, it’s obvious that Logan was mistaken as Alicia is actually a white actress who often portrays Native American characters. With time running out until the play must be produced, the characters have to brainstorm how to best celebrate Native American culture with a cast consisting of four white people.
Hannah Gross ‘21 took on directing this play at Skidmore with great responsibility and respect. As a part of the Theater Company class that takes place every Friday afternoon, Gross made sure to discuss that, even though The Thanksgiving Play is a comedy, underrepresentation of BIPOC and Indigenous voices has historically been a problem in the theater world. We see just how many problems arise as Logan, Caden, Jaxton, and Alicia try to work around their white-ness in order to write a show about the Indigenous people of the U.S.
Furthermore, Gross and her team used this play to raise awareness about how Skidmore College was built on the ancestral land of the Haudenosaunee, Mohawk, Mohican, and Abenaki peoples. As stated in the description of the video, “Land acknowledgement is only a first, small step towards building ethical, reciprocal, and reparative relationships with the Indigenous, Native, and First Nations people of this hemisphere.” Also included in the description of the video was a link to donate to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, an organization dedicated to ending violence against Native women and children in this country.
As the pandemic ensues, Gross also had the added challenge of presenting this play while abiding by COVID guidelines. Instead of staging the play live and in person, Anthony Nikitopoulos ‘21 took on the role of Cinematographer in order to create a short film version of the play that could be shared with the student body. Gross expressed in Theater Company how she wanted the final performance to be presented as a filmed play, rather than a film with complex shots and edits. This way, viewers still got the feeling of being in the JKB studio with the actors.
Nikitopoulos made this vision come to life with an added twist: each scene transition was a real life example of culturally inappropriate teachings of Thanksgiving. While the play itself took place in one setting, the transitions would cut away to sing-along songs, puppetry scenes, and re-enactments of what would happen in a typical American classroom around Thanksgiving time. Not only were these transitions a creative way of moving the story along but they also showed the audience why the characters don’t want to repeat ineffective means of teaching that have been put in place for far too long.
With that being said, the reason this show is a comedy is because the characters go to extremes in order to be sensitive. Jaxton, throughout the play, is known for talking about the struggles that come with being a straight, white, cis male. Caden, although brilliant, has weird trains of thought when it comes to playwriting, which often turn violent. The female characters, Logan and Alicia, teach each other important lessons about beauty, self worth, and being a female in the theater world. Logan was an actress who turned to education after being rejected for never looking the part, while Alicia never cared for academics because her beauty got her far in life. Alicia’s character arc is based around her changing desire from wanting play characters of different ethnicities to wanting to play strong, female roles. However, she still wants to play a pilgrim who aspires to be a Native American in the Thanksgiving play that the characters are writing, so perhaps she hasn’t fully learned her lesson yet.
The Thanksgiving Play, although comedic, is definitely a call for more diverse casting in theater. The play gives audience members a look into the complex world of playwriting and collaboration with other artists. Although the characters have good intentions, this play also teaches us what not to do when it comes to representing the historically underrepresented. The Thanksgiving Play also leaves audience members reflecting how the history of Thanksgiving has been taught to children of this country and how education going forward should be focused on the Indigenous communities that were here long before the pilgrims and who continue to shape the U.S. to this day.
Written by: Larissa FastHorse
Directed by: Hannah Gross ‘21
Stage Manager: Patrick Carter ’22
Dramaturg: Tatsu Rivera ’22
Lighting Design: Casandra Clifford ‘21
Cinematographer: Anthony Nikitopoulos ’21
Cast: Kat Collin ’21, Brendan Higham ’21, Steve Kurdziolek ’22, Dani Wood ’24
Maggie McGuire ’24 is a staff writer for the Skidmore Theater Living Newsletter