Jobsite Theater’s latest knockout of a show presents the work of Native American playwright Larissa Fasthorse. Obviously, she’s gonna have a few thoughts on Thanksgiving.
The Thanksgiving Play opened in the Shimberg Playhouse a few weeks ago to rave reviews. The play is terrifically funny, especially if you’re looking for someone to jab a sharp stick in the eye of white fragility among self-appointed woke liberal folk. The playwright, Larissa Fasthorse, holds the very dubious distinction of being the first Native American to have a full-length, full production in a major Off-Broadway theater for this very play. When? Last year, in 2018. So, we’re happy to have this chance to introduce you to her. You can get to know her a little better—then, if you haven’t already, go check out her fantastic play, or see it a second or third time.
We’ve edited and excerpted the interview below from a wonderful article by Victoria Myers, for The Interval. For the full article, visit “Larissa Fasthorse on The Thanksgiving Play and More”.
Victoria Myers: I read that you have a background in dance, and film and TV. How do you feel all of that affects your writing? And how did all of that impact how you taught yourself to be a playwright?
Larissa Fasthorse: I was a classical ballet dancer for a whole first career. In a lot of my plays, there are very large sections of physical, visual action as opposed to text, and it wasn’t intentional, but I’m sure that comes from my dance background and my film and TV background. I have a lot of trust in physical action on stage and physicality and seeing visuals without text behind them or involved in them.
I think it has helped me hugely. I sold two TV shows before I was commissioned to write my first play and I had a feature film going to the Sundance Native Film Program. I always wanted to write plays because I came from a stage background, but because every playwright I knew had a master’s degree, I thought that was a requirement, you just had to have one. Because I didn’t even have any kind of degree, I figured I wasn’t able to do that. Then I got commissioned to write my first play and I realized how much my film and TV background has really helped me.
VM: Going to [The Thanksgiving Play] and the idea of the American theatre, I read the play very much as a satire on many, many types of people that I’ve met working in the theatre. Did that ever feel scary to write about or have produced, especially as your New York debut?
LF: I don’t know why people are doing this play. I’m constantly surprised. I said in another interview that I just make fun of white people for 90 minutes and people keep coming. But, like I said, I did make sure that there’s comedy for everybody. Everybody can laugh at something. It’s not like I’m sitting there bopping you over the head with rthings.
I’m just really trying to say, this is what I see. This is what I experience every day in the world, in the American theatre, in white liberal America. I did a play called What Would Crazy Horse Do, where I worked with a Klan member as my research subject for a year and a half. He knew what I was doing, what the play was, helped me inform this character, and interview him about everything—and that was so much easier than working with super, super, super well-meaning liberals. I knew where he was coming from. It was an easy collaboration. We knew what our points of view were, we knew what our goals were, and we could just work forward. But when well-meaning American theatre, which is fortunately changing slowly, but has up until now mostly been white liberal folks, they’re so scared of making a mistake that it paralyzes them into doing nothing, and I can’t do anything with that. I don’t know how to deal with it. I can’t change it, I can’t fix it, I can’t work with you if you’re just sitting there in fear and ultimately doing nothing.
These folks that I’m actually talking about in my play, I hope what they take away from it is: let’s just all make the mistake together, let’s all be ridiculous together, and then that gives us somewhere to go. If I know where you’re coming from, you know where I’m coming from, and you can make mistakes, and I can make mistakes, and we can all get kind of crazy and yell at each other, but keep moving forward, that’s going to change everything. It truly will. I’m not someone who’s like, “Theatre will change the world,” but honestly, if we could all just start talking to each other and make mistakes and be honest, and then move forward and deal with that, it can change the world.
VM: Have you found while doing press, now and in the past, that you get asked questions that a white male playwright is not being asked?
LF: All the time. It’s endless. As soon as the announcement came out in The New York Times about this play, immediately I got fellow folks of color saying, “We need to talk to you about your white male director.” And I was like, “Great, I’d be happy to have that conversation after you assure me that you’ve talked to every white playwright that’s hired a white male director, and if you’ve asked them that same question first, then feel free to come to me, the first Native American person ever to be produced in the history of this theatre, who feels like I’m holding on to American theatre by my fingernails, then you can come to me and question me. But until you’ve asked the people that have been here doing this for 50 years, until you’ve asked them that question, then don’t come to me.”
VM: Do you feel that there’s an added pressure of altruism placed on you and your work? The play is a comedy and satire. Have there been people who have wanted to take it very seriously and reverently?
LF: Absolutely. … These characters are doing per formative woke-ness. They want to seem really woke, but it’s very much a performance that they do when it suits them and not when it’s needed and not for the people it’s needed by.
VM: What is your personal relationship like with ambition and have you found that it has changed over the course of your career?
LF: I’m definitely like a Type A. I’m a North, which is like the ambitious, aggressive, overachiever. My 40s have been a gift of being like, “Okay great, I’m a North.” I used to fight that and be like, “Oh, I should be more Northeast or Northwest,” But now I’m like, “You know, I’m just a North, so I’m just going to do that.”
I feel like I’ve always done that in my life. I said I wanted to be a classical ballet dancer from the middle of nowhere South Dakota, and as a Native American woman and there have been very few of us, and I did it. I said I wanted to write in film and TV, and I sold two TV shows. I said I wanted to write plays, and I’ve been really fortunate I can do this. It’s taken me a long time because I come from both the Midwest and the Lakota culture, which is very self-deprecating and everything’s about the community. But I’ve come to realize I’m a very ambitious person. I like to do well. That’s the reality.
I work and live in a white dominant society that values certain things, and what they value is a certain type of ambition, a certain type of ego, a certain type of confidence. Often, it’s different for women, but I don’t know how to adjust myself for gender, so I just go ahead and I’m me. I get called direct a lot. I love it when people are direct. But in women it’s often considered a negative. And I’m like, “Oh well, then I guess I’m not for you, that’s okay.”
I think that’s been a big part of my whole philosophy. I’m just going to go ahead and be me, and I’m going to be ambitious and I’m going to want to do well, and I’m going to want to succeed, and if that’s not for you then that’s okay, there are other people. …
My ambition is my secret weapon to make the seventh generation be able to do this a lot more easily.
I’m standing on the shoulders of so many Native women. We have Spiderwoman Theatre right here in town. Those ladies paved such a hard road. They were moving boulders, they were moving mountains just to express themselves and get to do their work here in downtown New York and have their own theatre company. They had to do such incredibly hard work just to say what they wanted to say in a small space, and they’ve grown themselves into this beautiful, nationally beloved theatre company and this institution. They worked so hard for it and I know that I’m walking on that road that they already created. They may not have been in this space, but I only can walk into this space because they created the road from downtown to here.
The Thanksgiving Play runs in the Shimberg Playhouse until Nov. 17.