Pilgrims and Progress

Identity politics get goosed in OCT’s The Thanksgiving Play

As I sat watching Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s current production of Larissa FastHorse’s cutting and uproarious comedy The Thanksgiving Play, I found myself several times recalling a scene from Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, a 2017 murder mystery set on an Indian reservation in Wyoming.

In that movie, Jeremy Renner, playing a wildlife cop, sits with his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who is painted in a blue-and-white “death face.” Renner asks, with reverence, how he knows what a “death face” is.

“I don’t,” Martin says. “I just made it up… There’s no one left to teach here.”

It’s an unforgettable moment, moving from solemnity to uncomfortable laughter to a tragic shock of recognition. It completely shatters the false pieties and unreal expectations that hang like dead weight upon our untenable truce with genocide and cultural erasure.

FastHorse’s one-act play channels that very same spirit, amplifying it into a not-so-absurd satire that is at once biting, funny and wise. In The Thanksgiving Play, four white people gather together to create a politically correct children’s entertainment that “honors the Native American voice.”

As the group gathers in a Montessori-esque classroom hung with the requisite MLK poster, they commence to negotiate a sticky web of identity politics that seems to grow ickier and trickier — and more wickedly amusing — the more they assert their good intentions. 

There is the director Logan (Kari Boldon Welch), who has received a grant to hire an actual Native American actor to participate in the play; her collaborator and boyfriend-not-boyfriend Jaxton (Kelly Oristano), an aggressively mild yoga dude and all-pervasive “ally”; the academic Caden (Scott Frazier-Maskiell), an aspiring dramaturg with a boxful of writings and zero theater experience; and Alicia (Jennifer Appleby Chu), the seemingly perfect embodiment of the hot, self-involved L.A. actress who, in reality, brings a refreshing dose of truth and self-awareness to all this high-minded and ham-fisted bumbling.

That Alicia, the portrait of “simplicity,” subverts our expectations of the Hollywood bimbo is but one of the complicated reversals FastHorse employs throughout this play. And such reversals are not some mean-spirited sleight-of-hand; in the case of Alicia, we are shown that owning up to yourself — Alicia knows she’s hot, and “not very smart” — is far more honest than donning an armor of proper opinions you’ve uncritically accepted.

Everybody’s got an opinion, and you know what they say about the road to hell.

This play, sharply directed by Kirk Boyd, reveals in no uncertain terms the insane babel of our current social and political climate — and it does so by holding up a mirror to an imaginary place that looks a hell of a lot like Eugene.

Satire is a beautiful thing, especially when it’s you being satirized. FastHorse, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, casts a gimlet eye at contemporary American culture. What she sees is a chaos of so-called good ideas that is more paralyzing than inspiring, leading to a devious breed of inauthenticity.

As with all great satire, The Thanksgiving Play is a bitter pill coated in sugar, but it has great redemptive power as well. In a sense, it’s the perfect holiday fare for these strange times, and hats off to the cast and crew at OCT for mounting such a gutsy and challenging production, and doing it so well. 

OCT artistic director Craig Willis says it best in his producer’s notes: “Beyond generating self-reflective mirth, comedy creates discomfort for the audience as we consider how easily others might lampoon our actions or beliefs. A thoughtful satirist’s aim is for the audience to move from self-reflection to corrective action.”

So, in the spirit of the season, I say thank you for this feast of laughter and discomfort. I might even go back for seconds.