The Thanksgiving Play, by Larissa Fasthorse, staged at the Seattle Public Theater, is an unexpectedly fun and thoughtful look at race and white guilt. The play stars Jonelle Jordan as the anxious and determined Logan, who’s writing a play about Thanksgiving; Martyn G. Krouse as the hippie Jaxton, her partner, who you love to hate; Andrew Shanks as the shy and passionate Caden, a history teacher; and Zenaida Rose Smith as Alicia, the gorgeous and deeply misled L.A actress.
How do four white people make a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving show for children about the horrific history of Native American treatment in the U.S.? Logan has landed herself in this pickle when her Native American actress turns out to be a white woman with “ethnicity headshots.” Paired with her hippie not-boyfriend, an enthusiastic elementary teacher with a passion for playwriting, and the previously mentioned white actress, the four of them have to create a culturally sensitive show out of their distinct lack of melanin.
All the characters were racist, but none of them in the cartoonish way usually depicted in the media. They want historical accuracy in their play, but some lack tact, others are culturally oblivious, and still more use political correctness to mask racism. Jonelle Jordan is enrapturing and hilarious as Logan, a nervous yet enthusiastic director, with a whole lot of drive and a misled conception of activism. She fully inhabits the character, complete with a trembling voice and a present tension in her body. She makes clear choices and they pay off. On the other hand, Jaxton presents a surface-level version of activism, but his “wokeness” soon cracks with lines suggesting Alicia is “not centered enough” to be Native American or by labelling Logan as a “bitch” in the latter half of the show. The character isn’t a good person, but boy, does Grouse make him fun to watch. The staging between Logan and Jaxton was also comedic and bizarre. For example, they performed an “energy releasing” kind of dance, a fun first look their relationship, as a way to put their feelings away before meeting the other two characters.
While Jaxton is a character played up, Andrew Shanks is subtle and careful with the portrayal of Caden, right down to the excited shake of his voice when presenting his work. He is the most relatable of the characters and has a distinct “just happy to be here” energy; he feels relaxed in contrast to the other bold personalities of the show, such as Zenaida Rose Smith’s oblivious, sweet Alicia. This character has danger of just being another Dumb Hot Girl, but Smith makes her endearing beyond the stereotype, at least comedically. Her off-color statements in the show are shown very clearly as ignorance, not hate, which is why this character is so interesting as a clash against Logan, who, as a “woke” person, is constantly trying to know more and change her language to be more PC. Alicia cares so little about what people think of her, while Logan cares so much. The characters brought together balance each other out brilliantly and hilariously, with Alicia playing the opposite to Logan, trying to get her to chill, and Caden and Jaxton competing for Alicia’s affections.
The show ultimately handled its themes wonderfully, with both respect and humor, asking if it is fair to leave Native American voices out of what should fundamentally be a Native American narrative. Logan struggles with telling a complete story when only one side is presented; after all, you cannot tell the story of Thanksgiving without mentioning the Native Americans involved. So is it right to tell someone else’s story, even if they aren’t in the room to tell it themselves? In the end, The Thanksgiving Play tells us, it is most definitely not.