They can do it all. They make movies and songs to educate other white people about racism. They’re so beloved that there’s a TV show dedicated to them. However, despite the pride they take in their whiteness, many struggle with their identities as “white people.”
Ever since they were invented in 1613, white people have always tried their best to do the right thing. Unfortunately, life is still difficult for many of them. They face real dangers in a world that is still openly hostile to them. As one white man said, “I’m a straight white male. It’s a minefield out there!”
That line is spoken by Caden, an elementary-school history teacher, in Larissa FastHorse’s ambitious satire The Thanksgiving Play, which recently completed an extended run at Playwrights Horizons. Caden is one of a troupe of educators and artists tasked with devising an original Thanksgiving play for the school’s annual pageant. The group’s leader and director, Logan, is under immense pressure (from angry parents, the school board, and strict grant requirements) to ensure that the resultant play will acknowledge Native Americans’ contributions to the first Thanksgiving, and portray them in a respectful and politically correct manner.
The situation becomes more tricky when Alicia, an actor from Hollywood hired to be the group’s “Native American compass,” turns out to also be white (if it’s any consolation, she might be part Spanish, so she’s Native American-passing). Logan, who hired Alicia online based on of her “Native American headshots,” couldn’t legally ask Alicia to confirm her ethnicity, and also can’t legally fire her just because she’s white. Consequently, the four white artists are stuck working together to make a play about Native Americans (or, “savages,” the historically correct term, supplied by Caden). But how do you write a play about Native Americans without any Native Americans in it?
This is the heart of the conversation that the playwright, Larissa FastHorse, wants to have. FastHorse is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and wrote The Thanksgiving Play largely as a response to being rejected by theater companies who were unable (or unwilling) to find actual Native Americans to perform in her plays, which often feature at least one Native character. In the play program, FastHorse notes, “Most theaters have never produced a play by a Native American person…and their fears about doing it wrong or offending Natives are paralyzing.” Bypassing the relative scarcity of Native American actors, The Thanksgiving Play offers any theater with access to at least four white actors (so, every theater) the ability to portray Native American issues through the words of an actual Native American playwright. In other words, now there’s no excuse.
This isn’t to say that FastHorse is overly concerned with fostering political correctness. Most of The Thanksgiving Play’s humor comes from the troupe’s hopeless in-fighting and spectacular failures, in spite of their obvious education and sincerity. While Caden insists on historical fidelity, Jaxton, the group’s “wokest” member, repeatedly reminds him that history is not always appropriate or respectful. At one point in the play, they join forces to simulate an historically likely-if-disturbing scenario: two white men laughing and kicking around a pair of bloodsoaked, severed Natives’ heads. It’s entirely unexpected, and no other playwright would have gotten away with it. FastHorse is willing to deliberately, graphically, and unflinchingly revisit the trauma of genocide. It’s easy to think of the slaughter in abstract terms—that is, until someone uses a human head as a bowling ball.
Even so, FastHorse avoids vilifying white people. In the same program note, she clarifies that her characters are “just real people, primarily liberal, well-meaning folks that we all know and love and are. Like us, they are deeply flawed and fighting for things with a ferocity that is beautiful and tragic.” As much as The Thanksgiving Play is about the impossibilities of finding common ground and the Hamlet-like question of taking action, it is also about the dangers of doing nothing at all. Alicia, who unabashedly uses her Native-passing status to her advantage, complicates the common stereotype of the unwoke white person. She’s ignorant, but she’s aware of it (she even claims she’s been tested to confirm her low IQ). In one scene, alone with Logan, Alicia says, “I do what I want to do and I don’t do what I don’t want to do.” It’s a statement only a privileged person, someone who has never been told “no” by the world, could make. Although Alicia doesn’t understand the system, it works for her. She has no reason to think deeply about it, let alone try to change it. And although Alicia is not outwardly racist, she allows herself to take up creative space intended for an indigenous artist. Even a passive white person is an obstacle to progress.
So, should white people even bother getting involved in anti-racist activities, or should they just get out of the way? This dilemma was explored with sympathy in another satire earlier this summer, in Second Stage Theater’s production of Straight White Men. The play centers around, Matt, a middle-aged white man who, having been taught as a child to be aware of his privilege, minimizes himself to make space for the underprivileged. As a result, Matt lives with his elderly father, plays a de facto housewife, and works a temp job Xeroxing copies for a local community organization. As you might guess, none of this makes Matt happy. His father and two brothers (straight white men too, if you’re wondering) start to worry that Matt is depressed, and try to pull him out of his slump, but to no avail. Matt is so paralyzed by his white guilt that he’s unable to have any ambition for himself. And although his self-sacrifice is well-intentioned, it’s questionable whether it is having any real effect. By rejecting his own privilege, Matt may be making space for others, but he’s also possibly allowing another white man, one who probably cares less about equality and justice than Matt does, to take his place. Instead of removing himself from the equation, Matt could accept his privilege and use it constructively to assist the people who need his help, not his silence.
Not so coincidentally, like The Thanksgiving Play, the main characters in Straight White Men are white (although a supporting character is played by Ty Defoe, a member of the Oneida and Ojibwe Nations, who, incidentally, works with Larissa FastHorse on Indigenous Directions, a consulting firm that assists clients with research on and sensitivity regarding Native issues). It’s also worth noting that Straight White Men’s production marked the Broadway debut of the playwright Young Jean Lee, who is Korean. Let me be clear: a play named Straight White Men was not only the Broadway debut of a Korean playwright, but it was also the first play by any Asian American woman to ever be produced on Broadway. “A Native American playwright and an Asian American playwright each write a play about white people” sounds like a setup for a bad theatre joke, but it’s the reality. And even though they’re technically brilliant, skewering plays, how much progress is really being made when minorities have to write plays for all-white casts just to get produced? Why is white comfort still a priority?
Even so, the message of both plays is clear. White people: if you care about solving injustice, doing nothing (or doing less than nothing) isn’t going to help. Playwrights like Larissa FastHorse and Young Jean Lee are acknowledging how difficult it can be to take action, especially when it’s so easy to be wrong, and white people are so memeable. Their sympathy should be encouraging. Yes, “it’s a minefield out there,” and people of color are not always going to be there to hold your hand and lead you down the safe path. Taking the first steps and learning from your failures will make you a better ally in the long run. You will make mistakes, but they’re mistakes worth making.
Even if they might be kind of funny.