Taking a Bite Out of Thanksgiving: Playwright Talks Native Humor, Chicago Audiences and Steppenwolf Run of Broadway Show

Larissa FastHorse. (Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)Larissa FastHorse. (Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Larissa FastHorse is the first Native American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. That show — “The Thanksgiving Play” — is now onstage at Steppenwolf Theatre. It’s a satire about earnest theater folks who attempt to stage a historically accurate Thanksgiving play. Mistakes are made, and political correctness, wokeness and virtue signaling get carved and stuffed.

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FastHorse belongs to the Sicangu Lakota Nation. She is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, a founder of the consulting group Indigenous Direction, and worked on the touring production of “Peter Pan,” devising a new backstory for the character Tiger Lily.

WTTW News spoke with the playwright, who was at her home in Santa Monica.

WTTW News: So what do you do on Thanksgiving? Is it just another Thursday? Do you order takeout?

Larissa FastHorse: Oh, no, I love the goofy food! I love a big plate of beige and orange food. I grew up eating stuffing, mashed potatoes, turkey and sweet potato. It’s all one color palette, plus it’s more carbs than you ever get to eat. I grew up in South Dakota and my father came from an agricultural background, so it was very much about harvest and being appreciative and for the time of rest for farmers. You still have to get up every morning and feed animals and milk the cows, but you don’t also have to do planting and cultivation. It’s an exciting kickoff to a new season for farmers in a way that I think city folks don’t understand.

I sure don’t. Your play was written a few years ago, so what’s your role when Steppenwolf calls?

FastHorse: When Steppenwolf calls, I show up because I’m a fangirl of their work and their place in American theater. To their credit, they reached out to me right away and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you involved,’ and I was like, ‘Yay!’ I helped with the choice of director (Jess McLeod) and somewhat in casting. I was there for the first week of rehearsals, and then I came back during tech rehearsals. I was in and out of the process but was there as an advisor and spent time talking about things like how to engage the local Indigenous communities.

“The Thanksgiving Play” runs through June 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Michael Brosilow)“The Thanksgiving Play” runs through June 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Michael Brosilow)

Was it fun to write a satire? Did you care who gets offended, or did you just want to hold up the mirror of truth?

FastHorse: I poke fun at everybody. No one escapes. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re just going to laugh at those people.’ There’s definitely fun to be had in this production, and I wanted people to be rewarded for leaving their couch and their streaming service and coming to the theater. It matters that a space like that is filled with laughter, and at the same time you’re going to hear a truth. I was lucky with this piece. It was fairly easy to write, in that 80% of it is just lines from my life, things people have said to me. I just had to connect that with a bunch of jokes. [laughs]

Is there a Lakota-style sense of humor or approach to storytelling?

FastHorse: In most Native cultures, and Lakota culture for sure, humor is a core cultural trait. I always warn people who are not Lakota when I bring them back home that teasing is how we learn who you are and how we show love. Once they start making fun of you, you’re in. [laughs] I rarely speak in generalizations about Native American people on the continent, but if you get any Natives together, within a minute the laughter is off the charts. Laughter is how we connect. Laughter is how we cope. It’s something that’s a huge part of our resiliency. We’re in the longest ongoing genocide — it’s been hundreds of years, and it’s still going – and we’re still here.

“The Thanksgiving Play” runs through June 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Michael Brosilow)“The Thanksgiving Play” runs through June 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Michael Brosilow)

In conversations with Native artists, I often ask, ‘What do you want people to know about you?’ And I hear a lot of: ‘That we’re still here. That we’re creative and vibrant and not stuck in your 19th century notions.’

FastHorse: We’ve been frozen in the time when White people first encountered us — roughly 1830 through the 1860s — and that’s so messed up. That’s when White people saw us and painted us, and photography showed up on the scene. What about the 1,000 years before that? What about the years after that? Like all humans, we’re constantly evolving and growing and adapting. For many years I couldn’t even apply for some grants because I’m not, quote, ‘a traditional Native American artist’ because I’m not doing things White people saw us doing in the mid-1800s.

Do you have any parting thoughts on your experience working on theater in Chicago?

FastHorse: You know, I’m an LA girl, but I will say Chicago audiences have earned their reputation for being serious theater people. They’re deeply involved and so engaged. They get there early and stay late and have discussions about the work. Among non-Chicagoans, folks can be like, ‘Really? You think you’re the theater people?’ Well, you are. You show up and know your stuff. It’s beautiful to see.

“The Thanksgiving Play” runs through June 2 at Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater.


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