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Play spoofing Thanksgiving lore gets Pittsburgh premiere

From left: Matt Henderson, Rachel Pfennigwerth, Evelyn Hernandez, and Matt Zierden in "The Thanksgiving Play."
Louis Stein
Arcade Comedy Theater
From left: Matt Henderson, Rachel Pfennigwerth, Evelyn Hernandez, and Matt Zierden in "The Thanksgiving Play."

Among holidays, Thanksgiving is the one most cited as the setting for contentious political discussions between relatives. No doubt, some of those discussions are about the nature of Thanksgiving itself. If so, playwright Larissa FastHorse’s comedy "The Thanksgiving Play" is seasonal food for thought.

The satire depicts four white adults trying to create a culturally sensitive middle-school Thanksgiving pageant that will also honor Native American Heritage Month. It receives its Pittsburgh premiere this week, at Arcade Comedy Theater.

“I’m describing it as a highly farcical comedy which offends everybody,” said local theater veteran Linda Haston, who directs. “But it does it in a way, ‘OK, you’re laughing, but you need to understand this. You need to get it.’”

The characters include a high school drama instructor, a grade-school history teacher, an aspiring actor, and an actress from Los Angeles the others assume — based on one of her headshots — is indigenous. But she isn’t, so the team struggles to honor Native American culture in the absence of any Native Americans, and to honor history without offending their audience, which presumably was raised on the myth of generous Indians and grateful Pilgrims.

The roles are caricatures, Haston acknowledges; Logan, the drama teacher, says things like, “Thanks for lifting up that awareness.”

“But there are people that are like that, in today’s society,” said Haston, with a laugh. “Trying to be politically correct, trying to do the so-called quote-unquote right thing. Trying to include people without including them into their set or entities.”

The production’s cast includes Rachel Pfennigwerth, as Logan; Matt Zierden, as aspiring actor Jaxton; Matt Henderson, as history teacher Caden; and Evelyn Hernandez, as L.A. actress Alicia.

Playwright FastHorse is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, in South Dakota. “Thanksgiving Play” premiered in 2018, and quickly became one of the country’s most produced plays.

A streaming production this past March featured Keanu Reeves.

Haston said the play’s purpose goes well beyond mockery.

“If this doesn’t start a conversation with people, you’re hopeless!” she said, laughing. “It’s gonna provoke thoughtful, meaningful conversations, although through laughter. And I think right now we need a lot of laughter.”

There are nine performances starting Friday and continuing through Dec. 5, though there are, ironically, no shows Thanksgiving weekend.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: