Broadway review

‘The Thanksgiving Play’ is anti-‘woke’ satire—to what end?

The Daily Beast

April 20, 2023

“The Thanksgiving Play” is a satire skewering the many blindspots that accompany white liberal earnestness. But, written eight years ago, it misses more contemporary targets.

The running joke in The Thanksgiving Play (2nd Stage/Hayes Theater, booking to June 4) is squarely on the “performatively woke” white liberal do-gooder—because in their mission to do good, Larissa FastHorse’s satirical play suggests, there is such little thought and nuance it undermines everything they profess to hold dear. In their ceaseless determination and desperation to do the right thing, everything they overlook says much about their own deeper ignorance.

The Broadway play invites us to laugh at Logan (Tony Award-winning Katie Finneran) and Jaxton (Felicity star Scott Foley) at every turn. They are beyond-Granola, earnest and right-on, a real-life couple keen to mount a Thanksgiving play in a school that is thoroughly inclusive and culturally sensitive.

She’s a highly-strung former actor-turned-director, he does a lot of yoga and knows all the right things to say, right down to telling her of the gift of a new water bottle: “It’s made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects. It’s symbolic of the way we’re going to create this play. We start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race then turn all that into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids.”

FastHorse, a MacArthur Fellow, is the first Native American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. This play, written in 2015—and showing its age, given current events—is a skewering of white liberal pieties. The “woke” are a now-familiar figure of mockery of those on the left and right; those people who try to do and say all the right things, and in the gap between words and deeds end up revealing their own prejudices, blind-spots, and inefficacy—an empty politics of gesture and tortuously silly word salads.

In a schoolroom designed by Riccardo Hernandez—with nods to very modish plays signified by posters on the walls—Logan and Jaxton are aided by Caden (Emmy-nominated This Is Us star Chris Sullivan), a history teacher with a penchant for detail and a barely concealed desire to be a playwright, and Alicia (a standout performance by Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated D’Arcy Carden), an attractive actor whose true identity is the piercing puncture through Logan and Jaxton’s intentions. Logan has cast her assuming she is Native American; but Alicia breezily informs that they were simply looking at her “Native American headshot.”

Alicia is Caucasian, and just wants a job. She has no interest in anguishing over identities and intention. Show her the money, attention, and hopefully fame (she ends up as the group’s true teacher, despite not seeming that bright). The actors, well-known variously for their TV and stage work, zip through some of the very funny comic material with breezy precision; the best silent acting on Broadway this season (so far) is watching Logan and Jaxton “decouple” and finally “recouple” with a series of coyly suggestive gestures.

The play, directed by Tony-winning Rachel Chavkin, becomes a repetitive comic treatise about what characters the four people can legitimately play, the words they can reasonably express, and—finally—having exhausting all avenues of self-justification and socio-political pondering, whether they should be doing the play anyway.

In between scenes on a screen, we see materials for schools, like singing high-school children, singing songs (“On the seventh day of Thanksgiving, the natives gave to me…”), with instructions for teachers that underline FastHorse’s satirical intent: “Teacher’s note: This song can do more than teach counting. I divide my students into Indians and Pilgrims, so the Indians can practice sharing.”

FastHorse recently told the New Yorker that she grew up in South Dakota, “where my Lakota people are from, but I was adopted at a young age, an open adoption to a white family who had worked on the reservation for a long time, the reservation where I’m from,” she said. “I was always raised very aware of my Lakota identity and my Lakota culture, and they brought a lot of mentors into my life, and elders, to help me stay connected. But, at the same time, I was growing up in a very white culture. My first career was in classical ballet, so it doesn’t really get much whiter than that.”

FastHorse hopes she can take Lakota culture and experiences and contemporary Indigenous experiences “and translate them for white audiences—which, unfortunately, are still the majority of audiences in American theatre.”

Early on, we see Jaxton has his limits, as a “vegan ally” he still likes dairy-sourced cheese on his crackers. Logan is determined to help the gorgeous Alicia “recover from the false value placed on her sexuality because I’ve taken that journey.” Finneran and the others work in double registers with lines like this; they mean them, and we see under the surface that she may be very pissed off to have had her own acting career cut short.

In the character of Alicia, FastHorse is highlighting the ongoing phenomenon of “redface” on film and TV, on stages. “There are so many non-Indigenous actors still playing Indigenous roles, and there are so many people calling themselves Indigenous that cannot in any way prove they’re Indigenous and have no actual connection to any Indigenous community playing Indigenous roles,” she told the New Yorker.

Caden compliments Logan for a production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh “made so much more relevant with fifteen-year-olds,” and then sprays the group with obscure Thanksgiving histories: “I suggest we begin four thousand years ago when the ancient northern Europeans joined the agricultural revolution and reaped their first organized harvest as farmers.” Logan, before knowing Alicia’s true cultural identity, says that even though she’s a vegan, she will not allow her “personal issues to take up more space in the room than the justified anger of the Native people around this idea of Thanksgiving in our post-colonial society.”

“If anyone knows kids, it’s Disneyland. It’s like science to them. I know, I was the third understudy for Jasmine,” Alicia replies. “Isn’t she Middle Eastern? My look is super flexible.” Logan wants to hear all about her Thanksgiving traditions, which turn out to be throwing a frozen turkey at wooden blocks. Her Caucasian identity revealed, Logan is disbelieving (“I got a grant”), then disconsolate: “We’re four white people making a culturally sensitive First Thanksgiving play for Native American Heritage Month? Oh my Goddess.”

The play, despite the energy and wit of its excellent performers, loses impetus as the group tries to improvise an acceptable play, Alicia suggesting she could play a Pilgrim “dreaming Native.” The idea, as the group (very funnily) munches imaginary corn, is their Native American neighbors are next door, silent. Caden and Jaxton eventually stage a full-on battle scene, with bloodied Native American heads leaving the stage and bodies smeared with streaks of red. The sharpest scene of the production takes place between Logan and Alicia—the latter the most fascinating character of the quartet—in which Logan’s desire to “teach” Alicia is met with the best, bluntest line of the play: “I don’t want to learn.”

Instead, Alicia teaches Logan something, which feels far more convincing than anything Logan set out to enshrine in the play. “I can’t be content,” she asks Alicia. “I’ve never seen a smart person who is,” Alicia says. Freed of inhibitions, Jaxton calls her a “bitch,” tries to row it back, and then reasons: “I went by the pronoun ‘they’ for a full year. I’m allowed one mistake.”

She ends up shouting at Jaxton: “You’re a bad street performer!” Caden, overjoyed to have his words performed, has his flirting with Alicia lightly rewarded with her acceptance of a lift. “Can you also write a play for me?” Alicia asks him, imagining her dream career opportunity with this golden line. “I want to portray a better-known historical feminist woman like Carrie Bradshaw. Or Lara Croft. Or Madonna!”

We see some last-minute truth-telling on the screen; a suggested caption for students informing them how, during Thanksgiving in 1997, the police attacked the United American Indians of New England’s National Day of Mourning; and then a note from a teacher: “Due to the potential for your fellow students to feel discomfort or guilt because of this presentation, it cannot be shared with the class. Next assignment: To help process our feelings, write letters to the Indians. Then, read them to each other.” Two forms of dominant-culture silencing are shown in stark contrast.

Jaxton’s rationalization of the group’s empty-headed improvisations is: “By silencing the Native voices we’ve made them too strong. Silence is so powerful on stage. Our characters can’t compete with that.” This sounds dumb because he seems so dumb. Logan says they should not perform any play: “Four white people can’t do a play about Thanksgiving that doesn’t piss off the funders or the parents or the universe. So we don’t.”

“We need to be less. Do less,” reasons Jaxton. “That’s the lesson. By doing nothing, we become part of the solution. But it has to start here, with us.” It’s a cleverly phrased perverse line of reasoning, highlighting how inert the kind of social engagement Logan and Jaxton practice is.

For FastHorse, “performative wokeness” means “white folks, liberal folks, trying really hard to do everything right, and, as you said, getting everything wrong,” she told the New Yorker. “I wanted to make sure that they’re people of today and not someone who you can look at—I don’t want people to be able to say, ‘Oh, well, since 2020 we’ve changed, so this isn’t me.’ Because it definitely still is.”

For sure, “performative wokeness” is a popular target for comedians, and its practitioners make for easy laughs. The Thanksgiving Play makes repetitive fun of their drippy catchphrases—“holding space,” and overly deferring to whatever marginalized community is in their midst, until they don’t get the answers or victim narratives they want. There is some truth to this, and so there are some extremely funny moments in the comedy and satire of The Thanksgiving Play.

But in totality, the jokes feed into a weird, regressive loop, and the echo chamber of conservatism. The war on “woke” is a repeat war—all its targets echo the “politically correct” jibes of twenty-plus years ago—the objective is the same; to mock and demean those who believe in inclusion, until that very belief becomes something to sneer at.

Accusing someone of being “woke” is both insult and useful way to silence—if the accused argues back, the accuser gets to sneer some more at their humorless right-on beliefs, or being too “sensitive.” Every example of “woke” fog-horned about in the media is a recipe ingredient used to justify anti-progressive policy-making, or the undermining of equality-focused lawmaking, because anything “woke” is inherently painted as lefty and extreme.

In the play, there is a curious lack of tension. What if one of the characters was revealed to be something else apart from being “performatively woke”—either genuinely bigoted, or if other fundamental or revealing or surprising parts of their characters were revealed in the scheme of the satire? There is no dissent in the play, no room for surprise. The main characters seem deluded at the beginning, and continue as such for the duration. It feels like one, very long, same joke—and a very familiar one.

A play which might have seemed fresh in the cultural arena of 2015 now feels thematically stale and clueless. It has necessarily no grasp of the controversial events unfolding in schools right now. Here is a play about how marginalized communities are ignored in school environments, and which scratches its chin over how and what children are taught about the history of Thanksgiving, yet does not nod to the Republican-run legislatures actually banning books in schools, and ensuring that trans, LGBTQ and race-related issues go untaught.

It invites us to laugh at people stating their pronouns, yet because of its time of writing, it has nothing to say about trans kids being forbidden from playing sports or banned from using school restrooms—or having their identities forcibly revealed to their parents, teachers and other staff threatened with prosecution if they don’t break their students’ confidence. There is nothing on the host of “Don’t Say Gay” laws, affecting what is and isn’t taught in classrooms, spearheaded by Florida.

Those on the left and right are united in their derision for “performative wokeness”; it seems to be easier to make fun as a phenomenon than taking on the far more vicious attacks currently being experienced by the marginalized at the hands of Ron DeSantis, and his fellow legislators and governors in Texas, Missouri, and Montana. While it may never pass the Senate, it is still significant that a Republican-led Congress today passed a bill banning trans kids from playing sports at school.

The Thanksgiving Play makes fun of earnest white liberals acting in overly socially conscious ways, in much the same way as Bill Maher does every Friday night. Sure, have at it. But the shared derision is, in essence, no different to the fulminations against “woke” and “political correctness” of the right wing. The end result is the same: the “woke” and “politically correct” end up as being cast as the villains, rather than those brazenly and unapologetically attacking and destroying the rights of minorities.

Are the white liberal “woke” the enemy of progress at this cultural moment, or do they just make for an easier comedy target than those succeeding in their efforts to attack the most marginalized groups in society? Perhaps playwrights will focus their imaginations on bigger, clear and present monsters—and quit the lazy shooting of fish in the barrel. In the climate of now, these jokes are just adding to a depressingly destructive chorus.