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Larissa FastHorse

A self-proclaimed “Steppenwolf fan girl,” Larissa FastHorse says she’s excited the company is presenting the Chicago premiere of her work “The Thanksgiving Play.”

Zubaer Khan

Larissa FastHorse satirizes well-meaning theater artists with 'The Thanksgiving Play' at Steppenwolf

Playwright Larissa FastHorse describes her research for “The Thanksgiving Play” as a “dark rabbit hole of weirdness.”

As she watched videos, studied teachers’ Pinterest boards and peeked in chat rooms, she was shocked by contemporary celebrations of Thanksgiving in schools.

It was a far cry from her experience as an indigenous person in South Dakota. Growing up, she wasn’t surrounded by pilgrim iconography, and she didn’t participate in historically inaccurate pageants.

“I’d seen these things in movies, and I thought it was a joke,” said FastHorse, 53, of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, who is a 2020-2025 MacArthur Fellow. “I thought it was some kooky Hollywood thing.”

Now, FastHorse is leaning into the absurdity with her satirical comedy about a well-meaning theater troupe’s attempt to stage an inoffensive Thanksgiving pageant.

“The Thanksgiving Play” has become one of the most-produced plays in the country. Last year, when it opened at New York’s Helen Hayes Theater, FastHorse became the first Native American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. On Thursday, the play had its Chicago premiere under the direction of Jess McLeod at the Steppenwolf Theatre, where it will run through June 2.

FastHorse said she hopes the play conveys the ways in which well-intentioned white allies can be performative and ultimately ineffective. The Santa Monica-based writer also said she was intentional about including the accurate, and often untold, history of Thanksgiving.

“I work in a pretty narrow field of the American population,” she said. “In theater, the majority is well-meaning white people who are to the left [politically]. And they’re lovely people. But man, they just make so many mistakes.”

Those mistakes are reflected in the play’s four characters.

“They want to do well, but not if it costs them,” FastHorse said. “They want other people to have power but: ‘As long as I don’t lose my power.’”

Steppenwolf ensemble member and co-artistic director Audrey Francis commended FastHorse for masterfully combining a message about the erasure of Native Americans with provocative humor.

“It is such an athletic feat, physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally,” said Francis, who portrays the character Logan, a high school drama teacher who directs the Thanksgiving pageant. “It’s one of the hardest plays I’ve ever done.”

In addition to acting out the main story line, the cast also performs interstitial segments drawn from real Thanksgiving school shows, mimicking the talking turkeys and songs about “Injuns” and “the red man” that FastHorse found online.

The actors must switch styles at breakneck pace, said Francis, who also described the emotional weight of holding up a mirror to her own life.

“This play is very much about non-Native people trying to do the right thing and failing over and over again,” she said. “I’ve made some of the same mistakes. … Anyone who is non-Native is going to be able to see some of the behaviors and identify with them.”

A self-proclaimed “Steppenwolf fan girl,” FastHorse said she was excited to have the ensemble members tackle her play.

“It’s such an honor to be here because so many people that I admire and look up to in the theater world came out of here,” she said.

And it didn’t take long for “The Thanksgiving Play” cast to impress.

“They are hardcore,” she said. “The respect for the text is incredible. These folks were off-book by, like, day two. And they were word-perfect. It’s really amazing.”

Chicago artists have long inspired FastHorse; she said she studied ballet because of the late Osage prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, a noteworthy figure in the Chicago dance scene.

“It is a brutal, tough world, and yet I loved everything about it,” FastHorse said. “I love the smallness of the world of ballet. Your day is focused on the perfect triple pirouette or just the slightest way your hand moves. … Those things make or break your day.”

Larissa FastHorse

Larissa FastHorse contributed to the book of a revised ‘Peter Pan’ that was seen earlier this spring in Chicago.

Zubaer Khan

Before transitioning into the theater world, FastHorse developed her writing skills through fellowships and internships at Sundance, Fox, ABC and Universal Pictures. When she started shopping her plays around, she faced setbacks. One artistic director in Arizona told her that her play couldn’t be cast because it included one character with Native American heritage.

“It was very discouraging,” FastHorse said. “I was like, ‘Wow, if I can’t even get a play made in Arizona with a half-Native American person, that’s bad.’ It was really shocking to me.”

FastHorse said that experience motivated her to create “The Thanksgiving Play” with four “white-presenting” characters, but with a script that still included the messages she wanted to convey as an indigenous artist.

She also said theater companies must do a better job of seeking out indigenous actors in their communities, or make room in their budgets to bring in indigenous actors from other states. She has cast and collaborate with indigenous artists and tribes through multiple plays with the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company. Through a program at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, she spent years engaging indigenous community members and training them to perform in a production last fall called “For the People.”

FastHorse’s career shows no signs of slowing down. She contributed a revised book to the new “Peter Pan” Broadway musical, which is currently touring the country and played at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre earlier this spring. She also co-owns consulting firm Indigenous Direction, which produced a land acknowledgment for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

She has new TV shows and music-based plays in the works, and on Monday, Center Theatre Group announced it will premier FastHorse’s new play “Fake It Until You Make It” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in January.

Passionate about creating opportunities for others, FastHorse said she leaves every meeting promoting two other indigenous writers.

“You need to learn how to read us,” she said. “You need to learn how to understand how we speak and how we think and how we express ourselves. You just haven’t had a lot of experience in that. But here’s a play. Read it.”

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