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Playwrights' Perspectives

Playwright’s Perspective: The Thanksgiving Play

By Larissa Fasthorse, Playwright

I am constantly surprised by the seemingly intelligent people I meet who have never questioned what they read in their history books, and nor do they want to. When I suggest that most of what they have been told about American history is a lie or at best heavily skewed for a political agenda, they reject my statement flat out. Apparently in the past it was not possible for a human to write a lie or a government to create a national narrative that was based in furthering their political gain. (We really should figure out their secret. Truth paper? Fingers that have been modified to reject typing lies?) 

The reality is that even when history is recorded in the moment (which is rare), we need to ask, “Who is recording this?” “How does their past experience lead them to interpret this moment?”

“What are they showing us?” “What are they leaving out?” “Who isn’t being heard?” 

That last question is at the heart of my life, career, and this play. As an Indigenous person of this continent, 99 percent of what is given to me as history is not only missing millions of voices but is blatantly wrong. That which was recorded and reproduced was usually an intentional choice to support governmental policies of manifest destiny and genocide to make America larger, wealthier, and great. But many Americans prefer to hold on to fond memories of favorite history teachers and novels and movies and summer vacations even if they are based on lies. 

So I’ve changed tactics with this play. I wrote a really funny comedy. Like a laugh out loud so much that it’s gonna add minutes to your life comedy. (You’re welcome.) And I started with an easy topic, Thanksgiving. Just to be clear, I love Thanksgiving. I love the food and time with family. I love a whole day set aside to focus on gratitude. When I started this play, I had the same reservations about the traditional Thanksgiving story that many of us share, but I had no idea how deeply complicated it is. 

Spoiler alert: the Thanksgiving you know and love didn’t exist. It didn’t even become a holiday until after the Civil War when Lincoln needed something to reunite the states in a benign, non-confrontational way. (That’s like a couple hundred years later for you non-history buffs.) My hope is that you will benefit from my months of research about this day you think you know and leave the theater asking your own questions, and then question everything you’ve been told.

But that’s only one part of the script. The rest is just real people, primarily liberal, well-meaning folks that we all know and love and are. Like us, they are deeply flawed and fighting for things with a ferocity that is beautiful and tragic. More tragic is that, as ridiculous as these characters seem at times, the reality of what I have experienced as an Indigenous person in America is so much more bizarre that people don’t believe it. Life is truly stranger than fiction, but I’ve tried to give you a good dose of both. 

Most theaters have never produced a play by a Native American person (including Playwrights Horizons) and their fears about doing it wrong or offending Natives are paralyzing.

But I need people to act and make a mistake so we can fix it and hopefully learn to do it better next time. Most of you don’t know me. I’m not a city person so I’ve never lived in New York, but I’m deeply honored that my first production in New York is here. This theater has made the commitment to provide you with opportunities to engage with many Native artists, Indigenous events, education about the land you are standing on, and helping you ask questions you never thought to ask. I want you to see this play, to live two minutes longer, to stay engaged. The Thanksgiving Play is going to be something new for this space. I hope you feel a difference. I hope you see new people next to you. I hope you are inspired to learn more. We’re going to make some mistakes, but let’s make them together.

Pilamaya ye.