TAMPA — Now that information about the first Thanksgiving story has emerged to the mainstream — different from the lessons taught in American schools for decades — people find themselves grappling with the holiday.
That’s the struggle in The Thanksgiving Play at Jobsite Theater. Directed by Kari Goetz, the play follows a group of four white people trying to create an elementary school Thanksgiving play with a narrative that can both honor the holiday as well as Native American Heritage Month.
Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse wrote this droll satire after difficulties getting her work produced. But while she’s roasting white liberal stereotypes, she also takes aim at conventions of theater itself.
Thanksgiving pageants are also spoofed throughout the play, with the four main actors playing the kids. In the opening scene, we’re the audience of a Thanksgiving play at an elementary school. The “kids” (Caitlin Eason, Giles Davies, Dana Mauro and Adam Workman) fidget through a warbly song about the holiday. Mauro has to go to the bathroom and it’s the first of many times her expressive face and mannerisms get big laughs. Throughout the play, the actors perform these pageants as elementary, middle school and high school kids. They’re great moments of physical comedy.
Following these interludes are songs with racist stereotypes (“don’t be an Indian giver”) with equally bigoted lesson plans for teachers. They’re distressing reminders of a not-so-distant past.
But they’re also exactly what Logan (Caitlin Eason) is trying not to do in the play she received a Native American professional arts grant to produce. Eason is spot-on as the insufferable vegan, a self-important actor and grant-collecting “teaching artist.”
Logan has hired her man-bun-sporting, yogi street performer boyfriend Jaxton (Davies) as an actor in the play. Davies plays this stereotype with such precision one might wonder if the role is really a stretch. In one moment, he nimbly scrambles up to the top of a refrigerator to sit cross-legged and meditate.
Logan cast Caden (played aptly uptight and nerdy by Workman), an elementary school history teacher who aspires to be a playwright. He’s got a lot of ideas about the play and has written a number of scripts. He bestows enlightening history related to the first Thanksgiving story, earlier conquests and harvest celebrations in world culture.
But the key player is Alicia (Mauro), pronounced ah-lee-see-ah, an L.A. starlet Logan hired with her grant because she thought she was Native American. Alicia is vapid, flirty and okay with using sex to get roles. When describing her acting methods, she says she just pretends and is proud that she can cry on command.
They rely heavily on improv, mostly miming eating while Logan feverishly directs them. It’s amusing, even if it goes on a little too long. They huddle around Alicia, hoping to gain insight from a Native American perspective. It becomes clear that she isn’t Native American at all.
This discovery sends Logan into a tailspin. Eason performs the meltdown with frenzy, her logic getting twistier by the second. She unleashes all of her angst about her ambition as actor and director. But she has an epiphany when Alicia’s nonchalant approach teaches her about “simplicity.” When the two study the ceiling, Mauro’s expression is golden.
Now that the play has no Native American voice in it at all, things get more absurd. They decide it would be offensive for white people to tell their story, so they remove it altogether. They descend into a number of mad versions by trying not to offend anyone, including the 300 mostly white parents that threaten Logan’s job. Even the world’s most staunch liberal with the worst sense of humor would chuckle during these moments.
Truths start coming out, like the burden of white male entitlement. No spoilers about the ending, but they’re proud of what they’ve arrived at. Consider this: Their solution is part of the problem.
IF YOU GO
The Thanksgiving Play
$34.50-$44.50. Runs through Nov. 17. Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. For showtimes, visit jobsitetheater.org.