Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Thanksgiving Play
FastHorse has said that one of the reasons she wrote the piece was that she kept being told that her other plays which featured Native American characters were too hard to cast. So she set out to create a play with four white characters who join forces to write a fully original, educational holiday program for an elementary school about Thanksgiving that honors Native Americans while also correcting the things about the holiday we've all been lied to about due to governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race. The hope is that it's also "something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids."
High school drama teacher and vegan Logan (Toni Kallen) has received numerous grants including the "Native American Heritage Month Awareness through Art Grant" to fund the project. However, the grants come with specific requirements she needs to ensure the play fulfills. Also, the petition from 300 parents who shut down her production of The Iceman Cometh that starred 15-year-olds is always present on her mind. Logan's romantic partner, street performer Jaxton (Josh Kontak), is a yoga enthusiast and "vegan ally" who is happy to participate in devising the play. Schoolteacher and wannabe playwright Caden (Scott Hyder) has prepared plenty of research on Thanksgiving and is enthusiastic about the chance to participate in creating this theatrical work. One of the grants Logan received has allowed her to hire Hollywood actress Alicia (Emily Mohney) to provide the "Native perspective." There's just one problem: Alicia isn't actually indigenous but she uses different headshots to depict her as various ethnicities and Logan assumed she was a Native American from the headshot she saw.
As the group's inner turmoil over the reality of the situation begins to get the best of them, and their fear of offending anyone is always on their mind, the foursome quickly learns that even with their "wokeness," progressiveness, and political correctness in mind, it's kinda hard to create a play about Native Americans with no Native American involvement. And, if they go forward with it anyway, their play would most likely piss off indigenous people, the parents of the students, and even possibly the entire Universe.
FastHorse's premise is great, and one that anyone who studied the way history is skewed for political purposes, and how holidays in particular aren't always based on fact, can understand. Also, anyone who has been involved in any group work function that deals with race where there are white people in leadership roles who speak of "safe spaces" for the minorities in the group and who claim, as FastHorse mentions in the play, that they are "enlightened white allies," will identify as well. Having worked for years in corporate America, and attended dozens of racial awareness seminars in which the white heads of the company felt the need to speak to prove how racially aware they were, I truly recognized how on the nose that aspect of the piece is.
However, FastHorse's characters aren't that fleshed out, and though she manages to give us many details about each of them, they are still fairly one-dimensional. We also don't really like any of them, which is possibly another reason the play isn't entirely successful, since it's too easy to laugh at their absurd actions. It's that humanity that's missing from the play. And since we know they all have good intentions, FastHorse's decision to repeatedly poke fun at the characters' veganism, vapidness, wokeness, and belief they are great actors because they are recognized from their sidewalk performances at the farmers' market comes across as toothless attacks and easy targets for comedy. It also doesn't help us like the characters any more and detracts from what the main focus of the play should be. These are also topics and characters that other plays, TV shows, and films have done a much better job at satirizing.
What does work very well in this production is a cast who do a good job navigating the somewhat unfocused and repetitive material and the video interludes that depict actual lesson plans or Thanksgiving classroom activities that FastHorse found for the play. The video segments feature the cast re-creating horrifically un-pc nursery rhymes and other actual songs and skits, along with eye opening comments, all of which are seething with racial commentary and negative stereotypes about Native Americans. The most shocking of these comes from a teacher who comments on a lesson plan about Thanksgiving with a recommendation for an exercise to divide the students into Pilgrims and Indians "so the Indians can practice sharing."
Director Christopher Haines is able to wring the comedy out of the video segments, and he ensures his cast deliver clearly defined portrayals of the mostly one-dimensional characters. Toni Kallen is humorous as the frazzled Logan who has nothing but good intentions in creating the most culturally sensitive and historically accurate elementary school Thanksgiving pageant ever. Josh Kontak is bright and charming as yoga nut Jaxton, whose performances in plays about composting at the farmers' market have made him a local celebrity. Kallen and Kontak form a fun couple; their "uncoupling" routine, after Jaxton gives Logan a gift of a water bottle he states was made from glass recycled from broken windows in a housing project, is very funny. Scott Hyder is Caden, whose enthusiasm for finally being able to create something theatrical is charming, but his puppy dog eyes and dopey crush on Alicia are a little forced and a trite moment in the play. Emily Mohney is hilarious as Alicia, the woman for whom it seems everything is a Disney reference and who proudly claims that she isn't smart ("I've been tested.").
For hundreds of years, plays have mostly been written by white playwrights, so the theatre clearly needs to hear from voices like FastHorse. It's just a shame that this play is a one-joke premise that isn't fully fleshed out, with ideas that are simply repeated. However, while the play isn't entirely successful, FastHorse's hope that her satire on Thanksgiving will make the audience "leave the theatre asking your own questions about it, and then question everything you've been told" is one element the play does achieve quite well.
The Thanksgiving Play runs through November 20, 2021, at iTheatre Collaborative with performances at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets and information for this show and upcoming productions can be found at itheatreaz.org.
Director & Designer: Christopher Haines