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Theater Review: The Thanksgiving Play

A scene from WMU Theatre's production of "The Thanksgiving Play"
Corinne Marsh
WMU Theatre
A scene from WMU Theatre's production of "The Thanksgiving Play"

Gordon Bolar reviews the WMU Theatre production of "The Thanksgiving Play" by Larissa FastHorse.

Western Michigan University Theatre’s production of “The Thanksgiving Play” provides new twists on some old notions about American history. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review:

How do you present a politically correct version of the holiday feast that supposedly took place between pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621? 

That’s the challenge faced by a high school teacher/director and her small troupe of actors as they prepare their own revisionist Thanksgiving performance for an elementary school audience.

Considering it is Native American Heritage month and most of the all-white cast members are socially conscious beings resolved to honor the culture and customs of America’s aboriginal inhabitants, what could possibly go wrong?

The result is a wickedly funny satire designed to ravage nearly all of what some might consider the sacred cows of political correctness. Or in this case the sacred turkeys of PC. Included here are gender equality, animal rights, environmental justice, and racial inequities, not the least of which is the treatment of Native Americans by English settlers. 

Native American playwright, Larissa FastHorse, doesn’t stop there. Her target is the theatre itself. High on FastHorse’s list are the theatre’s slavish efforts to include diverse voices (such as her own), screaming contortions that pass for acting warm-up exercises, and performers with no clue about the cultures they portray on stage.

Then there is the well-intended director of the devised play in rehearsal, Logan, played by Grace Carroll. She seeks to free her actors and “empower” them on their “journey” to improvise new material, while chaining them to the acceptable multi-cultural norms of the public education system she serves.

To ensure that the requirements for the arts grant that funds her play will be fulfilled, Logan hires a Los Angeles actress, Alicia, who is presumably Native American. Rhyan Shankool plays Alicia, a white woman who can “look Native” with the proper hair style and turquoise accessories.

Joining Alicia in creating and staging the script that never gets either created or staged, is vegan street performer, Jaxton, played by Topher Vehil. He brings focus to the actions of other characters onstage with his athleticism, stylized movement, and yoga positions frozen in time and space.          

Rounding out the cast is Caden, a would-be playwright. Bryce Wanstead presents this character as one who is humbled by the “opportunity” to open himself to the process of improvising the script. At the same time, he is thoughtfully skeptical of each decision that doesn’t coincide with the precious words he has penned prior to the first rehearsal.

The production succeeds when we see the clash of a character’s avowed social values conflict with their wants, desires and actions. As Logan questions Alicia about the concept of beauty being a “social construct”, actress Carroll shows us a woman with a poor self-image who longs for a style with flair and an appearance that will be more attractive to love interest Jaxton.

The rehearsal efforts of the four-member cast are punctuated by several clever, satirical skits such as “The Twelve Days of Thanksgiving”, lampooning conventional stereotypes around the traditional November holiday.

The weakness of playwright FastHorse’s script is that the same dead horse gets beaten over and over. The foibles and perceived hypocrisy of liberal PC are an easy and frequent target in this production.

Although each of the performers tries hard to pump air into this leaky Thanksgiving Day parade balloon of a play, their actions seem repetitive and allow little opportunity for character change or development.  

At the end of the evening I left the theatre to the music of the 1974 pop hit, “Come and Get Your Love”, by Redbone, a band with Native American heritage. I found myself wondering: what separated what I had just seen from a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch in which concept trumps character?

Local audiences have a chance to answer that question as “The Thanksgiving Play” runs through November 6.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.