Another side of the “Thanksgiving” story

by | Nov 26, 2021 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

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Larissa FastHorse, a Native American playwright, has said that the main objection theater companies have to producing her plays is that it’s too hard to cast them: We love your play, she would be told, but we just can’t find any Native actors.

So FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation of South Dakota and a 2020 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, found a way around that objection: She wrote “The Thanksgiving Play,” about a group of white liberal teaching artists trying to craft a Thanksgiving pageant that’s sensitive to Native Americans.

Things get messy.

“The Thanksgiving Play” was among the nation’s most-produced plays during the 2019-20 season. This weekend, the play hits the main stage at the Majestic Theatre as the season-opening offering from the Majestic’s Readers’ Theatre Company.

Robert Leff, who’s directing the Majestic production, has been a fan of the show since he saw a production in 2018 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theater.

“I found it very funny,” Leff said, but it was more than that: “I found that there are things in the play that made me cringe and also go, oh, ‘I shouldn’t be laughing at this.’ The situation was interesting. The characters are interesting – they’re fascinating characters, so that appealed to me when I first saw the show.”

The characters include Logan (Stephanie Wilson), a high school drama teacher who’s in hot water after her production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” triggered a petition campaign by parents to get her fired. (“The Thanksgiving Play” also takes knowing potshots at the theater world.) Logan figures that one way to keep her job would be to create a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving pageant – one that would honor Native American Heritage Month.

Logan gets “assistance” in this task from her boyfriend, Jaxton (Nikolai Kassatkin), and Caden (Patrick Leathrum), a third-grade teacher and frustrated playwright. Logan also hires Alicia (LuZena Donell), an actor from Los Angeles. It’s fair to say that the cultural blind spots in these well-meaning and left-leaning characters soon complicate matters.

“The four characters, to a degree they are stereotypes,” Leff said. “But … they remind me, the four characters, of people in Corvallis, people at the Majestic, people in theater chat rooms and so, yes, (FastHorse) is exaggerating them to a certain degree. But I see myself in three of the characters, I mean, not completely, but I see some of my traits and some of my characteristics.”

The play requires a high level of energy throughout from its four characters and also involves a considerable amount of physical activity, so Leff is grateful that the show will be staged on the Majestic’s main stage, as opposed to its Community Room, the location for most Readers’ Theatre shows. “This is a very physical show that takes a lot out of people,” he said. “We have more room to run around on stage and we need it.”

Another challenge in staging the show involves how to work in four interludes – selections from actual lesson plans and online message boards posted by teachers to share ideas for classroom Thanksgiving activities. The Portland show Leff originally saw used videos (featuring child actors) for the interludes, but this show didn’t have the time – or the budget – for something that elaborate. Instead, Leff has decided to keep things simple – his cast will don hats or other quick costume pieces to signal the start of these interludes.

Leff hopes that audiences laugh during “The Thanksgiving Play” – but also that they leave the show with plenty to think about.

That jibes with how FastHorse wants audiences to react. Here’s how she put it in a 2019 interview in American Theatre magazine:

“What I aim for is trying to change how an individual thinks. The work that I do in my plays is a constant calibration, moment to moment, to help audiences feel like they’re going down a familiar synapse pattern, feel they can empathize — and then disrupt that in a way they don’t know how to deal with. … So I throw things at them they don’t know how to deal with, and in a way which forces their brain to go searching around in those little synapse patterns, trying to find something that matches. And hopefully they don’t, which means they’re going to have to talk about it and think about it. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to create a thinking pattern change in one individual each night.”

If You Go

WHAT: “The Thanksgiving Play,” by Larissa FastHorse, a production of the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28. The Sunday show will include a talkback session with the cast, director Robert Leff and scholars from Oregon State University’s Kaku-Ixt Manu Ina Haws Cultural Center, including center director Luhui Whitebear, to discuss the play and its themes. The performances, including the Sunday afternoon talkback session, will be streamed on the Majestic’s website on Dec. 4 and 5.

WHERE: The Majestic Theatre, 115 SW Second St., Corvallis.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $11, $16 and $21; click here to order.

STREAMING: A streaming version of the show, including the Sunday afternoon talkback session, will be available on Dec. 4 and 5. Tickets for the streaming version are $11; click here for details.

CAST AND CREW: Robert Leff is the director. Cast members include Stephanie Wilson, Nikolai Kassatkin, Patrick Leathrum and LuZena Donell.

OF NOTE: The play is suitable for adults and high school students; it’s not appropriate for younger children. The play includes violence, sexual situations, racially insensitive language, racism and mention of suicide. Attendees will have to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to enter the theater. Masks are required in indoor spaces.

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