David Remnick: If you want to see some of the more extreme examples of liberally minded people bending themselves into pretzels to show that they're woke, you could tune into Fox News, which has a particular dedication to that theme, or if you want a more comedic version of it, you could see The Thanksgiving Play, which opens on Broadway this week and has already been produced around the country. It's a play about the making of a play.
The four performers struggle to devise a Thanksgiving play that is somehow respectful of Native peoples and historically accurate, but they also don't want to make the audience feel terrible about American history. They want to make the performers themselves feel included in the process of writing it. If that sounds like a train wreck, well that's what happens. The playwright is Larissa FastHorse, and she belongs to the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and she's the first Native American woman with a play produced on Broadway.
Vincent Cunningham: I wanted to talk to Larissa, not only because of the humor and the sharp wit and the structural tightness that you find in her work, but also because she has become just by identity, kind of a form most voice about Native presence in the arts and how our artistic culture feeds into and is a consequence of the larger culture in a way that almost no one else working in America is today.
David Remnick: That's The New Yorker's, Vincent Cunningham. He spoke the other day with Larissa FastHorse.
Larissa FastHorse: I grew up in South Dakota where my Lakota people are from. I was adopted at a young age in an open adoption to a white family who'd worked on the reservation for a long time, the reservation that I'm from. 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 in that way. At the same time, I was growing up in a very white culture and my first career was in classical ballet, so doesn't really get much whiter than that.
I don't know, maybe opera, I'm not sure.
Vincent Cunningham: There's a list, but ballet is on the top.
Larissa FastHorse: They're way up there. They're always in the top five. At the time when I was younger, it was very painful to be separated from a lot of things I felt like I couldn't partake in because I wasn't raised on the reservation or I'd been away from my Lakota family so long. That was very hard, but now I really recognize it as my superpower that I can take Lakota culture and experiences in contemporary Indigenous experiences and translate them for white audiences, which unfortunately are the majority of audiences still in American theater.
Vincent Cunningham: I do want to go back to this thing about ballet because it does seem like this really important part of your life that you were a professional ballet dancer. How much did your training as a dancer, how much does that stay with you? Is that a part of your approach as a writer? Do you think about that often when you're working?
Larissa FastHorse: Oh, yes. My ballet background is hugely influential in my work as a playwright. First off, just in the work ethic, ballet dancers are expected to be shown something once, and then you work on it on your own and you come back and you've got it down. People aren't going to sit there and spend a lot of time spoon-feeding things or teaching you one thing at time. You're expected to learn it, you're expected to do your own training at night, after six hours of classes and rehearsal, you're expected to do a lot on your own.
That kind of work ethic certainly has helped me as a playwright where you spend months sometimes alone in your home writing and you could miss that deadline, no one's going to yell at you. [chuckles] Also you can really see it in my writing. There's a lot of movement-based acting. Text-free scenes in my work, The Thanksgiving Play is a perfect example. There's several scenes. They have little to no text that are movement based and they are moving the story forward and they're essential to the story, but without using text, or very little text and a lot of movement and gesture.
Then I'd say finally also as far as my process, I was trained primarily in the George Balanchine tradition and his way of working with dancers, and his choreography was to change it all the time depending on who he's working with. When I'm in the room with actors like I have been here in New York for the past couple months, I'm constantly adapting my work to that group of people. It highlights their strengths and is perfect for them. My work is always changing when I'm in the room.
Vincent Cunningham: The Thanksgiving Play, it's about four people who let's say present as white, trying to put on a play about the first Thanksgiving and trying, and I think often failing to acknowledge this Native presence that they are somehow trying to highlight. I was thinking a lot about, let's say, what's happening in Florida about how we educate our children about topics that might make them feel whatever, guilty or upset. How much of today's dramas over education and race and history, were you thinking about with this new production?
Larissa FastHorse: Oh, a lot. I definitely have updated a lot for the times. It's interesting you mentioned Florida, the laws state if something causes, I think it's guilt, discomfort, or anguish based on your race, it can't be taught in a school. You'll see those words in the play if you come to it. I wanted to make sure that these people because they are, I call performative wokeness.
These are white folks, liberal folks, trying really hard to do everything right and as you said, getting everything wrong. I wanted to make sure that there are people of today and not someone who can look at-- I don't want people to be able to say, "Oh, well since 2020, we've changed. This isn't me," because it definitely still is. Interestingly, one of my first writing mentors was the great Mari Tomita, who was a Maori writer and filmmaker from New Zealand [unintelligible 00:06:16].
She said to me on my very first screenplay that I wrote before I was writing plays, she said, "Larissa, you can be an artist or you can be an educator. If you try to be both, you'll do one of them badly, so you have to pick one." I've chose artists and she said, "There's certainly art that educates and there's education that's artistic, but you have to choose which one you are and stay true to that."
Vincent Cunningham: I imagine that tension is exacerbated by the expectations of the audience. Just the way the arts happen in America, usually the audiences are white. I think it's fair to say some people come to the theater on some level hoping to have some educational experience as opposed to art. What I love about your play is that it's like, "No, you're just going to laugh and it's going to feel weird." Is that something that you like to play with or is it something that feels like a hurdle?
Larissa FastHorse: No, absolutely no. I love that. [chuckles]
Vincent Cunningham: One thing I love about this play, there's a character named Alicia, and she's played by D'Arcy Carden, a very funny, wonderful performer. She's hired on the assumption that she is a Native person. I thought about this because a lot of the literature that I was raised on Black literature passing is a big theme. What does passing mean to you on stage and off?
Larissa FastHorse: I am a white-passing in many ways, and yet at the same time before I was writing, when I was acting for a while and the casting director said to me, we can tell you're not completely white and that's a problem. I was like, "Wow, okay, I'm done. There's nothing I can do about that."
Vincent Cunningham: Is that America's subtitle? Is that perhaps the whole thing? [laughs]
Larissa FastHorse: [laughs] Yes, that should be. That little subtitle underneath United States of America. We can tell you're not white. It's a problem.
I am very light-skinned and again, it was something that was sometimes painful because colorism is a thing in our communities and it was sometimes painful that I was so light and white-passing, growing up with a lot of full blood by my father is full blood and they're much darker, my biological father. I had some pain over that growing up, and especially because then I was raised away from it. Like, "Who are you?" Showing up again. However, then on the other side, on the white side, which is American theater I am quite sure that I get into rooms that not white-passing native people would not get into.
Vincent Cunningham: It's funny, the other thing about Alicia is that she's brought in specifically not just to be an actively presence, but it's like, "We're going to use her expertise. What do you have to say? Please tell us--"
Larissa FastHorse: The wisdom.
Vincent Cunningham: I would imagine that that has some corollary to your experience.
Larissa FastHorse: Oh, it's exhausting. [laughs] I always say I just can't imagine what it would be like for a white male playwright. They just walk into a theater and they're just a playwright and they don't do anything else. I can't imagine what that's like. I've never done it because I'm so fortunate with the career I've had, but I'm also the first one in 90% of the places I've worked. The first one in this theater, the first one in--
It just goes on every [unintelligible 00:09:45] shows this year. Most of them, I'm the first Native American. I guess this is the privilege of being the first means that I also have responsibility. I do what I call Indian 101 that all of the staff has to come to including front of house, box office production, everybody to help them understand Indigenous culture, the space they're standing in, and most importantly, our audiences that we're hoping to welcome into the theater and how do we welcome them? Understanding that theater is a white culture. Western American theater is a white culture. The assumptions you're making of what's acceptable behavior in theater is completely different than what is normal behavior in so many cultures in this continent.
Vinson Cunningham: One of the great things about The Thanksgiving Play is that it spotlights so many things about theater that present to us as issues and actually say, "Do we really mean that?" I think we've all settled into an orthodoxy let's say of, you can't play outside of your race and ethnicity, whatever, your look. Of course what that means is if there aren't Indigenous roles to play, Indigenous actors are never able to do that act of representation. In your experience just working with actors and stuff, how have people started to think about that?
Larissa FastHorse: That's interesting because actually casting is still very complicated. Redface is being done regularly all over our country. On film and TV, on stages. There's so many non-Indigenous actors still playing Indigenous roles, and there's 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.
People say they understand more and they're doing better, and yet there they are. Redface is being done constantly. Conversely, fascinatingly, if you read the script of The Thanksgiving Play, I put in the character description that people of color who can pass for white should be considered for roles. I was really proud of that. When I get to New York we were told we can't put that in the casting breakdown. You can't ask people to play someone else.
I was like, "Wait, there are still white people on these stages in New York City right now playing Native." This was a few years ago. Playing Native, but you're saying, "I can't openly have non-white people play white people if they look white to you?" They're like, "No, you absolutely can't." I'm not allowed to ask people if they're Native American when they're being cast. We have to do this whole kind of song and dance if I try to figure it out by chit-chat and seeing-- and then people get all mad because of cast, and not if someone that turns out they weren't Native or they didn't have a connection to the community. It's this constant thing, which is all part of what we're dealing with in Thanksgiving Play.
Vinson Cunningham: Yes. One way of interpreting the show is that it's about the most far-reaching implications of meaning well. It seems to me that the people that come to Broadway shows are these same well-meaning people. [laughs] I don't know. What has been the response to that? This is kind of you, how do you feel about that?
Larissa FastHorse: Oh, it's absolutely you.
I do not hide that. I don't hide the fact that this is about white liberal folks, which tend to be theater goers, not all. I think the thing that I keep saying, but it's been very important to me in this play, was that first, it's fun and that you get to have a good time in the theater. Second, I would say that's the sugar and then there's the medicine. It's satire. It's a comedy within a satire. The satire is the medicine, and you have to keep taking it through it. Honestly, some people opt out. We've had a couple people walk out and-
Vinson Cunningham: Really?
Larissa FastHorse: -once they got too far in, they're just like, "No, this is too much."
Vinson Cunningham: I can imagine at least one scene where that might happen. [laughs]
Larissa FastHorse: The vast majority of audiences are really raucously responsive and really having a fun time. Last week we had audience members talking to the stage, talking back and it just got wild. They added six, seven, eight minutes to the show.
Vinson Cunningham: Whoa.
Larissa FastHorse: Yes. It was crazy.
Vinson Cunningham: That's a lot of talking.
Larissa FastHorse: It was a lot of talking, chatting and clapping, and responding. We love that.
Vinson Cunningham: Something that I've wondered because I think most people who live on Manhattan think about the Lenape only usually before a show or something, and then someone comes out and does a land acknowledgment and say, "This is the land of the Lenape People." They say this thing. How do you feel about that practice?
Larissa FastHorse: Yes. Land acknowledgment, honestly, I know in some places we're getting a little tired of it, but I will say it's not everywhere and it's not all facets of the society. I'd say, for me, until everybody in the United States of America, can name the Indigenous land they're standing on, we need to keep doing it.
Vinson Cunningham: Good. Okay.
Larissa FastHorse: I always say too though, land acknowledgment is a step. It's the first step of many steps toward reparation or the many steps of reparation. If you can't name who you're supposed to be paying reparation to, you obviously can't even begin. You have to at least know who reparations are owed to for the land that you're on. Who are you paying rent to? You need to know that and then you need to start paying the rent.
Vinson Cunningham: Thank you so much for doing this.
Larissa FastHorse: Of course.
Vinson Cunningham: It was so wonderful.
Larissa FastHorse: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It's so much fun.
David Remnick: The New Yorker's Vinson Cunningham, speaking with playwright, Larissa FastHorse. The Thanksgiving Play is in previews for its Broadway run, and it opens next week. [music]
[00:16:08] [END OF AUDIO]
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