In Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, published in full in the February 2019 issue of American Theatre, a troupe of white theatremakers in an unnamed American town attempt to devise a play about the holiday’s origins that will give due respect to the continent’s Native peoples, often erased by its celebration, and find their efforts thwarted by competing interests, creative differences, and crippling liberal guilt. The playwright spoke to Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park, Downstate), with whom she’s collaborating on a new project.
BRUCE NORRIS: First of all, and I think I’ve told you this before, my father’s from South Dakota and your father’s from South Dakota, so I think there’s a pretty solid chance that my ancestors killed a lot of your ancestors.
LARISSA FASTHORSE: Actually, the father of mine that’s from South Dakota is my Hunka father, my adopted father. So he’s white.
But I mean your biological father.
Ha, yes, he’s from South Dakota too.
We also have in common that we were both awkwardly performers in a previous life.
That is true.
And from reading the Playwrights Horizons interview with you, is it inappropriate for me to bring this up that you appeared in Fame the Musical?
I did. It was pre-internet.
So there’s no actual video record of this performance?
No, there is not. For which I am eternally grateful.
Okay, just to get a couple things out of the way. I don’t know your other plays, but I totally love The Thanksgiving Play. And you and I know each other obliquely through the Federal Hall Project that we’re working on. We’ve only once been in the same room together.
And only for a very short amount of time.
About an hour and a half. And my primary observation was that you really like Twizzlers, because you consumed an entire package of them in the hour and a half that we sat there.
Yes. One of my favorite foods. I had them for dinner the other night.
As a main course, or an appetizer?
Twizzlers, that was it.
The other thing I would say, in just my limited experience of you—and I say this favorably—is that when it comes to Native American issues, you might have the tendency to get a little prickly. I’m saying that in a positive way—I admire that quality in a person. What I want to know is, do you think that that quality comes from something about you as a person, or from the conditions under which you come to your political awareness and your writing self?
Yeah, it’s interesting—I think that simply stating facts often gets misinterpreted as aggressive, which is fine. I will take it. For me, I will do whatever I have to do to fight for the Native community. I’m surprisingly poor at fighting for myself. For whatever reason, I’ve been given access to rooms that 99.9 percent of my community haven’t been so I need to speak up for them.
Why do you think that is?
It’s a combination of being removed from the reservation and growing up in the white world, ending up with a Hunka family who were white, and then ultimately, through physical therapy and problems with my legs, being put into ballet, the whitest of white forms of art, and surviving that…
Barbershop quartet is actually slightly whiter.
That’s probably true, yeah. [Laughter] So one of the whitest. And also being half-white myself, I’m someone who can “pass” in many ways. So all of those things that were painful in my childhood—growing up feeling outside my Lakota people and being called a half-breed—those things have turned into my superpower, right? I can code-switch like nobody, and I understand the white world of theatre and how those things work in a way that, unfortunately, most Native folks haven’t been given access to. I do think colorism plays a part in it too—that I’m a “safer” Native: I’m an attractive, female, not-too-dark Native. All those things probably play a part in why I’m in the room. I also work really hard.
Do you feel that there are more, shall we say, “militant” Native playwrights who are getting sort of closed out because of their ideological positions? Or just because of their lack of access?
It’s a combination of things. A lot of the Native American theatre predecessors on whose shoulders I’m standing definitely did come from a more militant time and way of expressing themselves. Often they were writing for Native people and weren’t willing to translate in the way I’ve chosen to translate for white audiences.
Well, also, is it possible to make your living as a playwright writing exclusively for a Native audience? It seems like it would be very difficult.
I think it is difficult, but I also think that’s the American theatre’s fault.
The American theatre still wants things that make a white audience comfortable. So you could write to a Native audience but still produce it in a white theatre, you know what I’m saying? They could still produce that play.
But then you wouldn’t be reaching a Native audience, would you?
I think you could do both, right? You could be producing these things for Native audiences, and the white theatres with the money could be producing these plays, but they’re not. They want to produce plays that are more palatable.
Because I’m a pessimist, I think that white people like to demonstrate what you’ve called “performative wokeness,” so we can demonstrate how receptive we are to different cultures and different narratives. But I’m sort of dubious that we even think about what we want to see at all, and that you sort of have to sneak some broccoli into their Twizzlers.
Grind it up and… [Laughter]. I hear what you’re saying. I don’t know if they sit around and actually think about that. But my experience has been that when I have a play in a theatre, whether it’s Thanksgiving Play, where it’s Indigenous issues hidden in the play, or whether it’s straight-on Indigenous characters and issues, the plays do well. People want to see them. They sell well. I can’t tell you how many emails I have that start with, “We’re so surprised that…”
“We actually enjoyed it!”
Right, and that the box office did well, that we were extended. These things happen again and again. Native theatre, I think, is sometimes seen as the charity slot, but it does better than expected, again and again. I don’t think audiences sit around at home thinking that they wish their favorite theater would program a Native play, but I think when they see one they’re like, Oh, wow. I can learn something about Indigenous folks. Even though my job is not to educate, and I try not to do that.
And as an Indigenous human, once I’m in that theatre, then my job is to advocate for the play, advocate for myself as an artist, but then also advocate for my community. Because I can’t be the last Native person in that door. So I will fight tooth and nail for the community; I will do whatever I have to do to defend them, and make sure that the access stays open.
Do you mind if I just, like, completely arrogantly interrogate some of the ideas I’ve heard you put forward? In our meetings for the Federal Hall Project, I’ve heard you advocate for the wholesale return of what we call the American continent to Native people. And part of the project of your writing in a sense is to promote that idea. Is that fair?
Absolutely. I think it’s often news to people that many of us—like my people, for instance, the Lakota—have never given up the fight to get the land back. We’ve never said, “Oh well, let’s move on.” That hasn’t been an option.
Again, forgive the complete cultural imbecility of how I’m about to pose this question, but how would that come about?
Well, it’s already legally there. The United States still legally owes a lot—again, I’ll speak to the Lakota specifically, because everyone has different treaties and situations that I don’t know enough about. But the Black Hills, for instance—that is still our land. We’ve never given it up, and the government has only signed papers saying the opposite, that it is ours for eternity. The Supreme Court has upheld those treaties as recently as the past century. The government chose then to say, “Well, we’ll give you a bunch of money instead. We’ll pay for it.” And they gave us a ton of money that sits in trust, because that’s not what we want. We want our land.
So does this fight continue in courts currently?
Yeah, the fight continues all over the country. I was just reading about groups in California, tribes going through the same issues, trying to just get the government to uphold their own laws, and their own Supreme Court-ordered returning of our land. The truth is that it could just happen. And that’s the plan on our end. Of course, then, what’s the day after? I’m actually writing a play about that. What happens next? How do we deal with that? How do we deal with the immigrants on our land? Do we kick them out? That’s going to be a nation-by-nation decision. That’s what people forget too, that we are sovereign nations.
That must put you in a weird position when you see stories about migrants coming to this country, because you have an entirely different consciousness about what constitutes this country.
Absolutely, and it gets super complicated—who gets to call who a migrant and an immigrant and all that. It’s amazing to me how many liberal, well-meaning folk like you don’t understand that we are recognized by the U.S. federal government as sovereign nations with our own citizenship. The U.S. is our secondary citizenship. Most people don’t realize that, or that we as sovereign nations continue to fight to get the federal government to honor the treaties it signed with us.
For the record, I want to make sure you know I don’t consider myself well-meaning.
Okay, that’s fair. That’s why I asked you to talk with me today. [Laughter]
Okay, now I’m gonna go to the play. I’m assuming that, given the accuracy with which I think you depict theatremakers, that accuracy arises out of your personal experiences working in theatre.
Is most of your experience in regional not-for-profits of the type that I’ve worked in?
I work all over, from small literal storefront theatres to Playwright’s Horizons to Kansas City Rep and Cornerstone and various LORT theatres, and everything in between, for sure.
Do you feel that the excruciating attempts of the white theatremakers you work with to be politically correct is more pronounced in some places than in others? I’m not asking you to name names.
No, I really don’t. I feel like it’s pretty equally frustrating across the board. I would say the more non-traditional people think they are, the more dangerous they get. Because they think they’re the good guys, and they think that they’ve thought of everything, and they’re the most enlightened.
That’s the character of Jaxton in your play, right? He’s the guy who thinks he’s got the answer on every possible issue.
Exactly. Because he’s done the work, he’s been in the equity training, and he’s cried the white tears.
With Thanksgiving Play it was an all-white company, but was it an all-white creative team too?
No. We actually only had one white male on the team, the director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel. We had white women designers, and Wilson Chin, who is not white, and our sound designer, Mikaal Suleiman, is African American.
Are the excruciating PC behaviors you’re making fun of mitigated at all by having a more diverse rehearsal room? Or do they persist?
It definitely helps. In the room at Playwrights Horizons, the only other person of color day to day was Moritz’s assistant. She’s African American, and it was fascinating how no one else in the room but her had heard of the “one drop” rule.
Oh—the drop of blood, yeah.
Yeah, that one drop makes you a person of color. It’s such a famous policy that’s unique to the United States, and no one else in the room had ever heard of it.
Which is more obnoxious to you: the desperate attempt to anticipate your potential criticisms on the part of a white person, or their arrogant indifference to your criticism?
Ooh. That’s a tough choice. I think I prefer arrogant indifference, because at least I know where I stand. I like to know where I stand. Because I’m not afraid to fight if I have to.
Yeah, I often feel the same way when I get in conversations with people on the right who I disagree with, especially if they’re espousing a kind of repulsive capitalist position that I find insupportable. At least I know who I’m fighting with. But I have a much more difficult time with people on the left.
Yeah. It’s like trying to fight a boiled noodle. If they’re always switching their position, and everything’s okay and they can see the right in all differing ideas, it’s impossible. You can never get anywhere, and you can’t create anything with that. You know?
I mean, do you feel that sometimes you up the stakes in the fight just to get a spinal response—so that they stand up to you and actually engage?
I don’t fight in the room till I have to. My way of working tends to be a lot of questions. If you really interrogate those people, they have to take a stand at some point. They have to make a decision. They don’t always have to say it; I can point it out eventually: “You know what? It’s not ‘inherent bias,’ it’s just racism.” For me, interrogation and stories from my own life tend to get us there eventually, but it takes a while.
I’m guessing you don’t really feel what I would say a lot of female playwrights have expressed, that they feel somewhat marginalized or silenced in a rehearsal room, especially if there’s a male director in the room. It sounds like, given your personality and your outspoken-ness, that you don’t feel that.
No, I haven’t. I will say the only time I’ve encountered direct gender discrimination was when I was in film and TV, before I got into theatre. I was intentionally left out of social events where deals were being made because the executive said the “company policy” was not to include women when alcohol was being served.
You mean to indemnify themselves against the potential accusation that maybe they had done something sexually inappropriate, they kept women out?
God, what a backfire.
That’s such a massive cobra effect—where you try to correct a problem and make it worse.
Yeah, totally. And apparently gay people don’t exist? It’s okay to have men and men together with alcohol, nothing can possibly happen sexually. That’s the only time I’ve encountered anything gender-specific. I’ve never felt that way in theatre, but I’ve also rarely felt that way in any aspect of my life. I was brought up to be my own human by my parents.
But that goes back to my initial question of whether you are a kind of activist playwright because you are half-Lakota, or if you’re an activist playwright because you’re Larissa.
That’s a good question. I like to assume it’s because I’m Lakota, but I am who I am and I have always fought whatever I was up against.
You can’t tease them apart.
Yeah. That’s interesting. See, that’s why I’m talking to you. I wanted to talk with someone who doesn’t know me real well, so you don’t make assumptions. It’s great.
I read about your play called Average Family, and that it had fire onstage, live trees, an 800-gallon pond. Where did this happen?
Up at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Peter Brosius’s company. That was my first play, and it was crazy. And it was done in rep. [Laughter]
This is my question, because either one of two things is true: Either you wrote a play like that out of naïveté—you didn’t know how theatre would physically function—or you did it intentionally because you wanted to bring the theatre management to its knees by making impossible demands. It’s a clever ruse to see how far they’d go to placate you.
It’s a combination, actually. It was my first play, and I’d been working in film and TV, so I really didn’t know. But I’d been told by an early writing mentor to always write in one impossible thing that you can let go of, so that’s your bargaining chip. I’d planned for the pond to be my bargaining chip, that they were gonna protest, and I was gonna say how it was so important and we’d go back and forth and then I’d finally let it go, and I’d be the bigger person and they’d feel bad and give me everything else I wanted. But then they never questioned the pond! I remember Skip Mercier was the designer, and we were in the shop on this huge pond they were carving. And I was like, “Wow, I really never imagined you guys were gonna give me a pond.” And he said, “If you ever say that out loud again, I swear I will kill you.”
What happens in the pond? Why was it so integral?
Oh, it’s crazy. There’s a huge fight between these teenagers, and they end up flipping each other into the pond and they try to drown each other. There was a splash zone in the audience. It was a very violent play. Because I’m a pacifist, I write a lot of violence in my plays. So it was this huge explosion of violence that happened in the pond with children.
Do you take offense to the label “satire”?
No. I love satire.
Because I feel that that’s a label that has been applied to me sometimes, and I think to myself that it is a kind of demeaning label. It seems a kind of sub-category, a kind of lesser category than the “great” literature. The great literature which holds up that the interior experiences of bourgeois audiences is profound and worthy of contemplation, and satire says it’s not.
I use a lot of satire. What I love about satire—I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like it’s one step up from comedy. Because comedy seems to be the basement of no respect in theatre—though it is, in my opinion, the hardest thing to write and perform well. On this play I say it’s a comedy within a satire. I structured it that way. I guess I fight to say “satire” because “comedy” is death for critics: “It’s just a comedy.”
I did a play in Germany about six years ago, and they interviewed me afterwards and asked, “Can you explain the purpose of the humor in your plays?” And I said, “That’s the most German question I’ve ever heard.” That would be like asking what’s the point of orgasm in sex! Because funny things are funny and they’re enjoyable?
To add on to that, being Native American, everything’s supposed to be so serious. And people will constantly say to me, “I laughed—is that okay?” And I’m like, “Well, it was funny. So yes.”
Did you feel that you had to sort of grant permission to an audience to laugh at a play that’s about historical atrocities?
With this particular play people understand laughing at the white parts. They get very uncomfortable when they get closer to the Native things, or showing some of the ways that white people appropriate everything, including our tragedy and pain. When we get to those parts, that’s when it’s interesting: The white people get really nervous and scared about laughing, and the Native people laugh the hardest, because it’s so true, and you have to laugh or you would cry, you know? My favorite laugh in the theatre is when a person laughs, and then you hear them stop themselves from laughing.
Oh yeah. The laugh of discomfort is much better than any other kind of laugh.
My play What Would Crazy Horse Do? is a dark play, but I see it as a very, very, dark comedy. It is interesting watching people learn to be okay with laughing at these dark things. And then also feeling guilty about it, which they should. Life is complex.
The character Alicia, the actress, is interesting, because I feel like you juxtapose her against the other characters in the play as the one character who doesn’t feel any obligation to somehow attend to the supposed sensitivities of the Native American population they’re depicting.
I think what I admire about Alicia is something I’ve never achieved, which is a complete contentedness in who you are and what you know. And not feeling a need to cover it, or be anything else. The beautiful thing about Alicia is that she’s complete honesty. And if you track her closely, she learns. Whenever there’s a word she didn’t know, she ends up using it later. Because ultimately she’s a survival animal, right? She’s from a misogynist’s world, Hollywood, and she’s learned to take those sexualized ideas about women, make them her own tools, and thrive. We may want to judge how she’s chosen to use those tools, but she’s surviving and she does learn. If you tell her, “You’re not supposed to say that,” she won’t say it again. She will do better. I would prefer to have the mistakes out there, make them, and then change. She actually changes, where others don’t.
I mean, what do you think is the actual, for lack of a better word, efficacy of theatre in terms of achieving political change? I’ve often said to people that if your goal in life is to effect political change, making plays is the least efficient possible means of achieving that.
Generally speaking I remain unconvinced that theatre actually creates tangible political change, so when you’re writing plays, what do you hope will happen?
Well, I spend a ridiculously nerdy amount of time studying neuroscience and biology of the brain and how it works. I don’t think anyone’s gonna see one of my plays, and then sweeping policy change will be made and I get to have my place in the Black Hills. What I aim for is trying to change how an individual thinks. The work that I do in my plays is a constant calibration, moment to moment, to help audiences feel like they’re going down a familiar synapse pattern, feel they can empathize—and then disrupt that in a way they don’t know how to deal with. It’s pretty easy doing that with Native issues, because 99 percent of white people have no clue, right? So I throw things at them they don’t know how to deal with, and in a way which forces their brain to go searching around in those little synapse patterns, trying to find something that matches. And hopefully they don’t, which means they’re going to have to talk about it, and think about it. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to create a thinking pattern change in one individual each night. Hopefully all the individuals, but I’m aiming at one human with my writing.
You’re not by any chance a Monty Python fan, are you?
Oh yeah. Huge.
There’s a great sketch called “Confuse-a-Cat,” where there’s a cat that’s sort of lethargic and unresponsive, so they perform a show that’s a surreal, meaningless pattern of weird behaviors. And the cat is energized and refreshed because it’s confused. I feel like “Confuse-a-Cat” is sort of what we do.
Exactly. That’s really all I’m aiming for. If I can disrupt the thinking pattern of a person, and cause them to to create new patterns, and some new little synapse maps in their brain, maybe somewhere down the road, that will lead to new actions. That’s success to me.