You know that story you learned as a kid about the first Thanksgiving? Well, lovely as it may be, it’s just that: a nice story. 

Many of us white folks have come to realize this in recent years, and despite (usually) having the best of intentions to make amends, sort myths from facts, and finally get the story straight, even the wokest of Caucasians can screw it up. That’s the premise behind The Thanksgiving Play, currently onstage at Reno Little Theater. 

The fact is, none of us really know what the first Thanksgiving was like — scholars are still debating about where and when it actually took place — but we do know it occurred during a time in which European settlers were regularly torturing and slaughtering America’s Native people and then proudly boasting of “taming the savages.” 

So to presume, in the 21st century, that a bunch of white people can suddenly figure out how to fix all that is almost laughable.

Well, at least, it’s laughable to Larissa FastHorse, a Native American playwright who authored The Thanksgiving Play in 2015 during a 10-day fellowship, in response to constantly being told to give up her insistence on casting Indigenous actors. Her solution? A play about white people trying to produce a play about Native Americans without a drop of input from them.

The Thanksgiving Play is a play within a play. Logan (Hanna Widehat) is a theater director whose good intentions lead to some awkwardness, and Jaxton (Nui Phonphila) is an actor in Logan’s school production. Photo: Eric Marks

The play asks an essential question: How should we celebrate Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month at the same time?

The story opens as two incredibly woke white thespians, Logan (played by Hannah Widehat) and Jaxton (Nui Phonphila), set out to devise a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving play for elementary school students. They rely on Caden (Mike Muren), a white history teacher with theater aspirations, for historical accuracy, and Alicia, an experienced actress who was hired based on her Native-looking headshot but who actually has no Indigenous roots whatsoever. Woven in and among our four characters’ pratfalls are hilarious-yet-cringe-inducing video shorts that eerily resemble videos we might actually have seen in elementary school, with songs about moccasins and tomahawks and headdresses and references to pilgrims “teaching the Indians to share.” 

The 90-minute comedy skewers not only the whole Thanksgiving myth, but also the tendency toward cultural appropriation, the systemic problems of the theater world, and the trouble with woke white people who, though well meaning, often can’t figure out how to get it right and bring the most important voices to the table. 

Dwight George is The Thanksgiving Play’s director. Photo: Eric Marks

Fortunately, RLT didn’t care to make such a mistake and brought Dwight George on board to direct the show. Originally from Winnemucca, George is an enrolled member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and an Indigenous actor, director, and activist. Together with his twin brother, Everett, he founded a theater collective called The Roughtalk Sweethearts, an outgrowth of their participation in Brüka Theatre’s New Works Festival in 2015. Since then, George has been part of the local theater scene at Brüka, Goodluck Macbeth, TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada, and, of course, Reno Little Theater. 

When he was approached about this directorial opportunity, on first glance at the script, its themes and timeliness resonated deeply with him. 

“It’s pretty relevant to what’s happening these days with performative action,” he says, referring to the frequent tendency among whites to say big things that ring hollow, to talk the talk but not walk the walk. “That’s kind of what this play is about — people with good intentions and bad follow-through, no thought behind it and no real education or guidance. I really like that aspect of it. Plus, it’s funny. And I think that’s one of the best ways to get big ideas across to people — to make them actually enjoy listening to the lessons.”

One of the best things about being director is getting to pick your own cast, and George was excited to cast primarily BIPOC actors who also happened to be the best actors for the roles.

Leila Rosa plays Alicia, a white actor who’s often cast in non-white roles. Photo: Eric Marks

“So you have a diverse cast playing ‘woke’ white people,” he explains. “There’s this history in American theater of telling mostly Euro-centric stories with Euro-centric ideas and people. So it’s nice to reclaim it, to say, ‘Now you get to watch us do what you did to us,’ and that was an interesting idea that I’ve really enjoyed.”

After all, white actors have played BIPOC characters on stage for centuries. Still, how do you tell a story about misguided white people who aren’t white? What impact does such casting have on this story?

“I wanted to present these actors because, first, they were the best people in the room for those parts. But also, it adds an element of, ‘I know you’re gonna focus on this person’s color, but this is how you all act,’ and it helps the audience to truly see themselves, and to give us a chance to kind of be like, ‘Look at how dumb we all look doing this. So imagine how you look to us.’ It’s kind of a call to action, so it’s an interesting take.”

The Thanksgiving Play will run at Reno Little Theater Oct. 1-17. Tickets and info  www.renolittletheater.org.

Posted by Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina is a freelance writer and editor who has been covering the arts and culture scene in the Reno area for nearly two decades. See more of her work at www.jessicasantina.com.