Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, now playing at Artists Repertory Theatre, is a beautiful skewering of sanctimonious, upper middle-class white guilt. It’s a joke at the expense of comfortably privileged people who only began to care about politics after the 2016 election and stopped by the inauguration. It’s a committed, well-crafted satire, right down to the Seventh Generation disinfecting wipes, culturally inappropriate smudging, and references to Burning Man. That’d be enough to sustain this brisk, 90-minute play—please can all plays be 90 minutes—but there’s much more at work here.
The Thanksgiving Play’s very existence is a jab at the theater world’s lack of meaningful diversity—FastHorse’s previous plays, which were focused on Native American characters, weren’t getting reproduced due to theaters’ professed casting difficulties. So FastHorse wrote a play that didn’t require Native actors. The characters in The Thanksgiving Play are white, and it’s a true reversal to see white actors deliver lines written by a Native American playwright skewering white culture. It’s pointed and deservedly mocking, and doesn’t let its characters off the hook.
The legacy of racism and oft-ignored genocide at the heart of America’s worst holiday is revealed in all of its terrible glory here, with offensive elementary Thanksgiving skits intercut with the action, as struggling, tunic-clad director Logan (Sarah Lucht) attempts to put together an age-appropriate yet enlightened yet abstract yet accessible Thanksgiving performance for elementary schoolers. She’s joined by her street-performer paramour, Jaxton (Michael O’Connell), an obnoxious new age-y man wearing a culturally appropriated mala, who reminded me of every real obnoxious new age-y man wearing a culturally appropriated mala. They’re assisted—somewhat—by Alicia (Claire Rigsby), a white actress they’ve mistakenly identified as Native American based on her intentionally racially ambiguous headshot, and Caden (Chris Harder), an amateur actor and dramaturg played by Harder with a manic delivery reminiscent of The Good Place’s Jason Mendoza.
The play’s broad silliness—and the actors’ commitment to its absurdity—makes these characters easy to laugh at, and it was a medium-weird experience to hear a room full of Portland theatergoers—mostly white, and mostly, I’d guess, over 40–laugh, essentially, at themselves. Maybe that’s an important exercise, though. It’s easy for well-intentioned liberals of a certain age and character to drown their pretty good values in self-seriousness and sanctimony. (This is, after all, the Pacific Northwest, the center in the Venn diagram between West Coast whiteness and well-intended liberalism.)
Only by laughing at our performative seriousness do we see it’s part of the problem.