By Anya Shukla
“It’s a party in the USA,” Miley Cyrus giggles over the audio system as I enter the Seattle Public Theater. As the audience chats, the music shifts to Lee Greenwood, who sings gruffly, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Seeing as we’re about to see a play about four white people struggling to create a historically accurate play about Thanksgiving, the choice of music is darkly ironic. Who gets to be an American? we’re asked even before the play starts. Are all Americans really free?
As the lights go down, we are greeted with a video of a Thanksgiving performance by elementary schoolers. As they cheerfully chant about what “the Natives gave to me” while wearing stereotypical Native American costumes, the audience cringes. This song, and those like it, are juxtaposed with that of Cyrus and Greenwood’s view of America. Even though we may believe that we are in, as one The Thanksgiving Play character states, “a post-post-racial society,” misrepresentation and prejudicial thinking still occur.
The Thanksgiving Play, written by Larissa FastHorse, centers around Logan (Jonelle Jordan), an elementary school playwright tasked with creating a Thanksgiving play for little kids. To do so, she enlists the help of Jaxton (Martyn G. Krouse), her partner, and Caden (Andrew Shanks), a history teacher. She also calls in Alicia (Zenaida Rose Smith), who she believes to be a Native American actress. When it becomes apparent that Alicia, too, is white, the four characters are in a pickle. How can they create a play about Native Americans when there are no Native Americans in the room?
Alicia is the most outwardly problematic of the bunch. Her “ethnicity headshots,” where she took pictures of herself in various “ethnic” costumes—she essentially posed as Native American—are what got the characters into this whole mess to begin with, and her politically incorrect statements don’t help. In a particularly inspired scene, she introduces a dream sequence, where, to circumvent the issue of having white people portraying Native Americans, she’ll be “a pilgrim dreaming Native.” Unfortunately, she’s content with her actions, even if they hurt others. As she says, she doesn’t want to change her beliefs. That kind of deliberate ignorance is not okay.
On the other hand, Jaxton, with all his new age yogi talk, may seem “woke.” I mean, he literally does a decoupling dance with Logan, so they can put away their feelings for each other before they get to work on the play. But over the course of the show, Jaxton’s carefully curated hippie persona begins to unravel. At the end of The Thanksgiving Play, the Native Americans have been written out of the play entirely, leading Jaxton, an “enlightened white ally,” (his own words) to go off on a rant about the lack of recognition for white people. Why is there no white person month, he wonders? Standing above the rest of the cast on a block, literally and figuratively in a place of power, he finally reveals who he really is.
Jaxton’s partner, Logan, is equally PC. As a vegan, Thanksgiving is a sensitive time of year for her: she almost throws up when turkey is described. Immediately after that incident, she apologizes; she doesn’t want to take up space with her issues. Yet that’s what she continues to do throughout the play: deal with her problems rather than focus on being equitable. In one scene, instead of working on their section of the show, Logan and Alicia begin discussing the acting lifestyle; Logan, self conscious about her failure to act in L.A., attempts to warn Alicia about the city. Flash forward ten minutes, and they are both staring at the ceiling; no work has been done. Logan may be careful about what she says and does, but she’s so wrapped up in herself that she sidesteps dealing with the play entirely. She doesn’t actually fix anything. Her ability to hide behind her own problems and politically correct language allows her to be just as poisonous as Jaxton, albeit in a more sneaky way.
Caden is similarly, subtly complicit in racism. Like Logan, he doesn’t seem overtly racist. He’s a teacher, just trying to be historically accurate, but the other members of the group continually shut him down. But during Jaxton’s rant, we witness a key side of Caden — he tries to speak up, but can’t say anything. Caden is a bystander, unable to stand up for his ideals. He has the power to stop the monstrosity that the Thanksgiving play is becoming, but, for various reasons—peer pressure, perhaps—he doesn’t. In doing so, he becomes just as much of a perpetrator as the others.
These four individuals are each racist, whether overtly or discreetly, in their own ways. Through these caricatures, FastHorse depicts the continually evolving and often-understated nature of racism in America. Racism has changed with the times. It’s sneakier now, but as the ending of the play could lead one to believe, all the more deadly.
These offensive characters may be exaggerated, but I’m guessing you can see parts of their personalities in friends, family, maybe even yourself. I, for one, am guilty of being a Caden, of not speaking up when I see injustice. But this play made me confront the results of my passivity. With these over-the-top characters, FastHorse magnifies our problematic behavior, forcing us to examine our flaws. We are forced to keep reassessing our actions, our words, our beliefs, our values long after the closing lines of The Thanksgiving Play.