If you’ve ever been a parent—or a kid, for that matter—you probably remember what it was like being part of an annual Thanksgiving holiday pageant at an elementary school: tots dressed up in Pilgrim hats or Native American feathers reciting accepted truisms about that first feast when the two sides historically bonded over turkey and maybe a pie or two. In fact, you will see some videos evoking those moments during the running time of The Thanksgiving Play, now onstage at Urbanite Theatre.
But those traditional pageants struggle now in an era of political correctness, as presented to satiric effect in this play by Native American writer Larissa FastHorse. Entering a minefield of gender/ethnic/political issues related to the holiday and our history, what’s a team of teaching artists and actors to do?
That’s the challenge facing Logan (Genevieve Simon), the artist responsible for the Thanksgiving playlet at an elementary school (with a classroom and little theater area brought realistically to life by set designer Frank Chavez with cubbies, theatrical posters and masks representing different cultures). She isn’t writing the play, she’s “devising” it, with the help of some improv techniques and the actors she’s brought together in that classroom.
One is her boyfriend, Jaxton (Paul Michael Thomson), a guy who performs in a spot at the farmer’s market and uses his yoga moves repeatedly throughout the play; another is a nerdy, earnest historian, Caden (Eric Leonard), who has brought with him apparently decades of research into actual facts, some dark, concerning early feasts; and yet another is Alicia (Clare Lopez), who seemingly has enough genes of color in her to have convinced Logan she’s a Native American. (She’s not.)
Casting a Native American is crucial to one of the grants Logan has received for the production, or so she believes. Beyond that, though, how can this quartet really produce a Native American Heritage Month piece without a Native American somewhere in the cast? And how do they do the show at all without offending someone, somehow?
Both playwright FastHorse and director Larissa Lury seem to know this type of well-meaning, overthinking type of theatrical collaboration well, and the cast plays it with just the right air of comic sincerity and intensity. Leonard, as the seeming outsider, shows how it’s possible to get caught up in the process even when you’re initially reluctant; Lopez scores by demonstrating her character’s agreeable vapidity, as she admits to her own simplicity and stares vacantly into the air; and Thomson conveys with authenticity the sort of would-be actor you sometimes just want to slap in the face for his pretentiousness. And as the director of all this nonsense, Simon has a firm command of her character as an artist who both believes in and doubts herself.
From time to time, the fun slackens in FastHorse’s work, but it’s still a pointed and welcome comedy in Urbanite’s roster of plays. The Thanksgiving Play continues through Dec. 15; call 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com.