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Essay

The American Voice: This Land is Your Land

By Sarah Lunnie, Literary Director

“What American roots run deeper than Indigenous stories? Yet what American stories have been more mistold and silenced than those of Native Americans?”
Madeline Sayet

“What did the Indians call America before the white man came? Ours.”
Xavier, Urban Rez

“I’m gonna get myself fired from the American theater for telling this story,” Larissa FastHorse said recently in an interview with DC Metro Theater Arts. “The reality is that the number one reason that I’m given for my plays not getting produced is casting.” FastHorse, who came to dramatic writing via film and television more than a decade ago after a career as a professional ballet dancer, has been commissioned and produced by theaters all over the country, but The Thanksgiving Play marks her first production in New York. “I know that American audiences are hungry to learn more about Native American issues through art because otherwise they don’t learn about them in this country,” she said. “So, I set a challenge for myself to write a play that deals with Native American issues and in a way that removes the excuse of casting difficulty from the equation.”

"With pitch-perfect comic precision, FastHorse exposes the all-too-common result of attempts by white artists to address a culture about which they know very little."

FastHorse, who is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and whose plays often feature Indigenous characters, wrote The Thanksgiving Play to be performed by a cast of all white, or white-passing, actors. As a group of terminally “woke” volunteers assembles to create a pageant celebrating both Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month, their intentions (good, dubious, and otherwise) collide with their ignorance, and egos.

With pitch-perfect comic precision, FastHorse exposes the all-too-common result of attempts by white artists to address a culture about which they know very little: the story increasingly re-centers white anxieties and perspectives, marginalizing the very people whose history it purports to illuminate.

That’s not to say that FastHorse subscribes to stay-in-your-lane identity politics when it comes to making art. Rather, she believes in respecting your subject and knowing what you’re talking about. “Since I am a half Native American and half white playwright, I advocate for the freedom to tell any story,” she wrote in an essay about representation for TCG Circle. “I don’t want to be limited to stories about half-breed NDNs from South Dakota who become ballet dancers that retire to a life of writing… If that is all I am allowed to write, I’m going to have a short career. However, I want to add an amendment. You can tell any story, but if you choose to write about a specific Native American culture, take the time to represent them accurately. The United States has a very long literary and cultural history of misrepresentations of Native people.”

In satirizing the total breakdown that results when characters fail to do this work, FastHorse offers more than a history lesson or a cautionary tale, though both are blazingly present. As she illuminates the genocide and violent colonial expansion that is the history of European settlement of this continent, a disarmingly humane character study of the fractured American psyche emerges from her increasingly grotesque comic portrait — one that seeks to make its white audience members laugh with recognition, even as it refuses to let us off the hook. 

“I go to the theater to engage with the world. Otherwise I could stay home and watch TV. So as a playwright I want to encourage as much engagement as possible. My plays get into your head and make you think differently about yourself or something you thought you knew,” she told DC Metro Theater Arts. “They don’t give answers but ask questions… I won’t say what I specifically want you to be talking about after this play, but if you are talking or thinking, I hope you take that as the gift I intend it to be.”

This openness is a trademark of FastHorse’s substantial and growing body of work; many of her plays contain surprising, even uneasy, dramatic turns that resist tidy interpretation. In Landless, the non-Native proprietress of a struggling Main Street mom-and-pop spends the play clinging to the trappings of “normal” American life under late-stage capitalism, only to find relief, and even freedom, in homelessness — a homelessness that seems perhaps less fractured, more rooted in community, than the world of the dominant culture through whose cracks she has slipped. The play’s vision of liberation is a surprising one, but, in FastHorse’s hands, also not easily dismissed. In What Would Crazy Horse Do?, she imagines an uneasy affinity between Indigenous twins — the last of their tribe, in the wake of their grandfather’s death — and members of Free America — the rebranded offspring of the Klu Klux Klan — to interrogate the colonially enforced concept of blood quantum as a means of determining rights to membership in tribal nations. It’s a provocative, even alarming, juxtaposition, one which FastHorse doesn’t resolve even in the play’s final moments.

If a penchant for provocation is a hallmark of FastHorse’s plays, so is wry comedy. A recent dive back into her anthology had me laughing out loud. “I’m a big fan of dark humor and satire,” she told the playwright Sam Chanse, in an interview anticipating a workshop of The Thanksgiving Play at the Lark Playwrights’ Week. “I blame my parents for showing me a lot of British TV as a child.”

She deploys that dry sense of humor in the service of truth-telling throughout her body of work. In Urban Rez — an immersive, participatory fair commissioned and produced by Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles —she paints a Kafkaesque portrait of a Native person navigating the intentionally convoluted process of applying for tribal recognition with the US government. Another character shares his list of Top Five Things to Tell a White Person: “Do you live in a covered wagon?” “How much white are you?” “What is the meaning behind the square dance?”.

"She deploys that dry sense of humor in the service of truth-telling throughout her body of work." 

Here, as she does in many of her plays, FastHorse addresses prevalent ignorance of Indigenous history and culture, while also representing a more nuanced vision of its Indigenous characters than much of what predominates in popular culture. Rather than portray Native people as part of a monolithic culture with uniform values, perspectives, priorities, lived experiences, and relationships to Indigenous identity, she writes characters with as wide-ranging (and often conflicting) perspectives and as layered, intersecting identities as anyone else. As for her non-Native audience members, though we cannot escape the violence of our past, FastHorse challenges us again and again to take responsibility for knowing it, and to act on what we learn. When Ed, a member of a recognized Native American tribe, counsels to “Educate not implicate,” Hailey, a teenager from the extinct Nicoleño tribe, counters, “Ignorance is no excuse” and “Learning but no loopholes.”

This summer, Larissa spent several hours speaking with the staff of Playwrights Horizons in an informal but profoundly informative session she dubbed “NDN 101.” As I reflect on that conversation, too wide-ranging to summarize here, it seems noteworthy that Larissa did more than teach me things I didn’t know about her and others’ Native cultures; she also prompted me to consider things I hadn’t noticed before about the various cultures in which I claim membership, including the American theater. Which, like any community, is also structured by norms and conventions that flow from a dominant culture, however frequently or seldom we may stop to notice it. It strikes me that as Larissa builds her body of work, and as her plays are produced around the country, she is not only using her writing to expand representation of Indigenous perspectives and experiences, or to tell the stories that matter to her; along the way, she is using her productions as opportunities to dramaturg the institutions themselves, challenging us to examine our own unspoken conventions and values, and to pursue opportunities to make them more expansive and inclusive.

“People often ask me if I’m a ‘political playwright,” she reflected in her interview with DC Metro Theater Arts. “I don’t have a choice. By virtue of being a Native American female in theater, I can write about dogs and cats and people see it as a political statement because my point of view isn’t seen as coming from the dominant culture even though I grew up in the very white world of ballet. However, I have embraced that perceived voice as a unique way I can contribute to the world… I take the responsibility to be a bridge and make a real life difference in the world through art very seriously.”