City Paper never used to review shows at Olney Theatre Center.
The venue was too far out of the District (11 miles north of the Beltway) and too far from public transit (almost 7 miles from the Glenmont Metro station). Philosophically, our reasoning went, we weren’t serving our core readership by deploying critics to the hinterlands. Also, some City Paper writers do not own cars.
But we remain committed to highlighting the best theater options in the area and prioritizing local talent, and the truth is, Olney’s theater options keep getting better. Gone is the era when you could easily catch up with recent off-Broadway hits a season later at Logan Circle’s Studio Theatre, plus occasional forays to Arena Stage or Arlington’s Signature Theatre.
These days, to keep up with whatever drama is big beyond Times Square, you either hop on a bus to New York or drive to Olney.
The Thanksgiving Play, a scathing comedy directed by Raymond O. Caldwell that both mocks White wokeness and skewers traditional Pilgrim-and-Indian school pageants, opens Olney’s season. Just how buzzworthy is the script? The 2018 off-Broadway premiere extended and helped nab a 2020 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for Larissa FastHorse, a playwright from South Dakota and member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. Now it ranks among the most-produced plays in America, and it’s attracted celebrities like Keanu Reeves to do a Zoom reading.
There’s a whole lot of simulated animal skinning in The Thanksgiving Play, so perhaps passing a dead deer, an opossum, and pair of raccoons while heading to the theater on State Route 108 got me in the mood for a show about 17th century colonialism.
So many Americans were taught some version of the Cape Cod cornucopia story, when Pilgrims roasted wild turkeys and grateful Native Americans showed up with bushels of corn. Each year, more schools acknowledge they didn’t all live happily ever after. But what replaces the mythology? What do we tell the kids still tracing their hands and drawing turkeys?
That’s the question facing Logan (Megan Graves), a progressive drama teacher who’s scrounged together enough funding to put on Turkey Day assemblies in a nameless school district. For help, she recruits Jaxton (Parker Drown), an amateur actor and devoted yoga practitioner, and Caden (David Schlumpf), a history teacher and aspiring playwright. Thanks to a “Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant,” Logan also flies in a Native ingénue actress (Dani Stoller) who wore demure brunette braids and turquoise jewelry in her headshot, but shows up baring cleavage, guzzling Starbucks, and swearing her family’s only Thanksgiving traditions involve frozen turkeys and the Detroit Lions.
For the next 90 or so minutes, the mismatched quartet, giddily played by local actors, endeavors to “devise” an equitable new Thanksgiving play from scratch. They will, as Jaxton puts it, “start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race and then turn all that into something beautiful.”
Drown’s character says this—and all his other lines—with the over-the-top earnestness of a guy telling everyone “Namaste.” Jaxton always sets his intention for the day, and later in the show, he’ll head to a far corner of the stage to meditate about privilege. Please respect his emotional space.
Or don’t, because mocking well-intended White people is the whole sardonic point. FastHorse wrote the script to address legitimate concerns from theater companies struggling to tell Native stories without access to Indigenous actors. Her response—it’s as if she said, “Fine, here’s a play about White people trying to put on a play about Native people”—is genius.
The script panders hard to theater geeks who will laugh at the onstage improv games and devised theater tropes. “I mean, actors in Sweden haven’t touched a script in years,” Jaxton says. “They’re so far ahead of us.”
As a theater critic once invited by the Swedish embassy to attend a devised, interactive play for school kids about the civil war in Syria, I found this line hysterical. On the other hand, everyone in the audience will likely chuckle when Stoller’s dimwitted ingénue grabs the Swedish bit and gushes about how much she loves Ikea.
In the show’s most serious moments, dark humor targets anyone in the audience who made construction paper turkeys at school. In a series of projected videos, pre-recorded by Olney and dispersed throughout the play, actual Native actors satirize “educational” children’s songs like “Five Little Indians” and lesson plans that ask students “to write letters of apology to the Indians.”
Clearly, when it comes to teaching Native American narratives, American pedagogy remains a work in progress. It’s also apparent that times have changed since FastHorse even finalized her script in 2018. The show feels slightly dated, even, because the overly woke characters make no reference to recent revelations about the mass graves found at residential schools in Canada and the Pacific Northwest or to statistics noting that for every Gabby Petito media frenzy, dozens of Indigenous women go missing and are never found.
Perhaps that’s a fixable omission, and FastHorse should update the script. More importantly, it’s an indication that the American theater desperately needs her to keep writing Thanksgiving plays.
At Olney Theatre Center to Oct. 31. 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. $79–$84. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.