Steppenwolf Tackles Indigenous Representation in Satirical 'Thanksgiving Play'

Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago presents "The Thanksgiving Play," a satirical comedy tackling white liberal guilt and Indigenous American representation onstage. The play, written by MacArthur Genius Larissa FastHorse, runs through June 2 and explores the challenges of representing Indigenous Americans without stereotypes or cultural appropriation.

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Nitish Verma
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Steppenwolf Tackles Indigenous Representation in Satirical 'Thanksgiving Play'

Steppenwolf Tackles Indigenous Representation in Satirical 'Thanksgiving Play'

Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago is presenting a satirical play, "The Thanksgiving Play," written by MacArthur Genius Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota), running through June 2 at Steppenwolf Ensemble Theatre. The comedy re-examines the holiday of Thanksgiving, tackling white liberal guilt and Indigenous American representation onstage.

Directed by Jess McLeod, the production features a cast of four, including Steppenwolf co-artistic director Audrey Francis, Nate Santana, Tim Hopper, and Paloma Nozicka. The play follows Logan, a director tasked with creating a politically sensitive Thanksgiving pageant for an elementary school, as she navigates the challenges of representingIndigenous Americansonstage without resorting to stereotypes or cultural appropriation.

Why this matters: The play's exploration of Indigenous representation and cultural appropriation highlights the need for greater diversity and inclusivity in the arts, as well as the importance of giving voice to marginalized communities. By tackling these issues, the play contributes to a broader conversation about representation, power, and social justice.

FastHorse wrote the play as a response to the common excuse that Native American actors couldn't be found for productions, which she knew to be untrue. She challenged herself to write about the contemporary Indigenous experience using an all-white presenting cast. "I used to say, 'This is my most depressing success,'" FastHorse said, on being the first known Native American woman to be produced on Broadway with a play that has no Native characters.

"The Thanksgiving Play" has become one of the most produced plays in the United States, with FastHorse initially expecting only a few extra productions. The play's popularity stems from people's desire to learn about Native American issues, which are often overlooked in the education system. FastHorse believes that the play's success is due to its ability to fill a gap in education, providing a platform for people to learn about the rich history of Native Americans before 1776.

The play satirizes the well-meaning but misguided efforts of white liberals to address Indigenous representation, as well as the self-involved nature of some theater artists. Through a series of ridiculous scenarios, the play explores the difficulties of telling stories about Indigenous people without ceding control to them to tell their own stories.

The 90-minute play includes interludes of imagined Thanksgiving pageants, ranging from cringe-worthy to awesome. The in-the-round setting adds to the play's manic energy, with the cast delivering the play's message with breakneck gusto and guts. The production also includes a thoughtful lobby display on Native Americans in Chicago and the Midwest, created by engagement curator Dillon Chitto (Mississippi Choctaw, Laguna/Isleta Pueblo).

"The Thanksgiving Play" runs through June 2 at Steppenwolf Ensemble Theatre, with performances on Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 3 and 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM. The production offers accessibility features, including audio description, touch tours, open captions, and ASL interpretation on select dates. FastHorse's satirical play provides a thought-provoking and humorous look at the challenges of Indigenous representation in theater, while highlighting the need for Native Americans to tell their own stories.