jakub | April 17, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | ‘My Tone Is Indigenous’: Larissa FastHorse on Native Comedy and Storytelling

Larissa FastHorse.

While going through a series of notes meetings on a TV show she had with a network, Lakota playwright and MacArthur Fellow Larissa FastHorse jokes that she came up with “the worst drinking game in the world,” to wit: “If I took a drink any time they said ‘tone’—as in ‘I don’t understand this tone’—I would just be dead.”

FastHorse’s brilliant satire The Thanksgiving Play, directed by Rachel Chavkin and starring Katie Finneran, Scott Foley, Chris Sullivan, and D’Arcy Carden as woke white liberals trying to plan a Turkey Day play for grade schoolers, is now in previews at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre (it opens April 20). The show is stunning for its capacity to shift like quicksilver between comedy and straight-up horror, quickly stripping audiences of our ability to anticipate where we’re headed. The word “tone” is too small to contain what FastHorse is bringing.

I spoke to FastHorse on Zoom during previews about Thanksgiving Play, what it takes to do satire well, and the place of comedy in Native storytelling.

JIM McDERMOTT: I got to see the show last week. May I give you two immediate reactions?

LARISSA FASTHORSE: Please, I love it.

I went with a friend, and after the show we went to a restaurant to process. We were both aware of the fact that everything we were saying made us sound like Jaxton and Logan (the characters played by Foley and Finneran). It was like, not only did a bomb go off in the theatre—you gave us uranium rods to take home with us. I’ve felt the same way trying to put together questions for you. The show has made me so self-aware and self-skeptical.

Well, that makes me really happy. That’s my hope—that it’ll reverberate for a long time.

I was also stunned by how much the show makes us in the audience and our ongoing reactions to the play part of the experience of the show. At the beginning, you do the Nine Days of Thanksgiving video with the school children, and I could hear everyone listening to everyone else, wondering: Do we laugh at this? And that keeps happening the whole show.

One of the things that’s really lovely about Rachel’s direction is that all of her shows have a breaking of the fourth wall in some way, or audience involvement. So this was just a perfect marriage of my desire to make an audience have an experience together, and her desire to make sure that’s a constant circle that’s more than your usual theatre experience. So that makes me really happy. Yeah! It works!

D’Arcy Carden, Chris Sullivan, Katie Finneran, and Scott Foley in “The Thanksgiving Play.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Thanksgiving Play has an all-white cast, a white director, and seems pretty consciously at least in part to be targeting a white audience. In what ways would you say it’s still readable as a Native play—not just in its message but in its sensibility, its style?

It’s a Native play because a Native person wrote it. Native American art is art made by Native American people. So it is Native on its own. It doesn’t need any more justification than that.

In addition to that, obviously the content is very much Indigenous. I can always tell where the Native people are in the audience, because there are certain jokes and certain points of view that are just for them. There are certain things that are just very inside for my community that they appreciate.

I will say, one thing we have talked about quite a lot with the Native folks that are in the design and production team and other Native folks that have come to it is, it’s unfortunately very Native to show the unvarnished history. Any good human wants to pull back from the scene about the heads. [At one point in the show, the two men reveal that their big idea for the Thanksgiving show is to have the pilgrims kick around the bloody, hacked-off heads of murdered Native people, as actually happened in 1637, and then proceed to do it.] They want to depict it nicer, carefully. They’re worried. And of course it can be very traumatic for people too.

But a lot of Native folks come up to me and say, Thank you for finally just saying it outright. This is actually what happened, and you don’t pull back from it or make it nice or careful. Finally someone is just saying what really happened. Sadly right now it’s still falling on us as Native people to have to say the truths out loud, I think in the same way the Black community has had to. So many Black directors have had to make kind of horrific movies at times, because no one else is saying, “Okay, we can’t keep tiptoeing around this or making it nice so everybody feels better. This is what we’re talking about. Now we can move forward.” And that’s the hope with this for me.

And I’d say the structure in all of my plays is very Lakota. When we tell a story, there’s always two endings: You end the story once, the “plot” of it, if you will, and then there’s the second ending that’s kind of the application, the way it applies to you and the way it should be taken into the world. All my plays have two endings. It makes people crazy, but that’s how Lakota storytelling works.

I spent three and a half years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation working at Red Cloud Indian School. I hadn’t thought of it till now, but one thing I would notice is that sometimes Native storytelling would be cyclical. I’d think, “Didn’t we just hear this?” But no, it’s like a spiral and you have to ride the whole thing out. Would you say that’s true in Thanksgiving Play too?

For sure. Rachel has described it as the snake eating its own tail. That’s how she sees these characters and what’s happening. Yeah, it definitely fits within that cyclical way of things.

I will say, the one thing about Indigenous people in this country is that we have an understanding that there’s nothing new. It all just keeps coming around. When Trump was in office I was like, you know, this is not new for us. We’ve actually seen worse. We’ve seen outright genocide. We’ve been hunted for bounty. There’s always a new one, and they keep coming and going and we keep persevering.

With that sort of understanding, where do you find hope?

Well, the fact that we’ve persisted is, like, huge. The “greatest nation in the world” has been trying for hundreds of years to eradicate us. George Washington himself, after being in office as President of the United States, said we should extirpated, which is a pretty intense desire. Not assimilate, extirpate—completely wipe us out. This country has been trying to get rid of us for hundreds and hundreds of years and we’re still here. So that makes me incredibly hopeful. We’re clearly meant to be here, because we still are.

Also, that’s why I use laughter in my stuff. Native people always say: You have to laugh or cry. So we choose to laugh. If you spent three years on Pine Ridge, you know that laughter or teasing jokes is just the center of everything. You can’t get together with Natives for more than five minutes before everybody’s just rolling with laughter. It’s kind of our secret weapon to life, and I’m really thrilled that I get to employ it in this way and help people also to laugh. Though it is partially aimed at white folks, the play is also meant to be funny. It’s meant to give people that beautiful release and time together as an audience, getting to have a really good time in the theatre. But then also, to choose your metaphor, to have the uranium rods for afterwards. [Laughs.] I’m trying to make these things all exist together, which is kind of tricky. But I’m pretty proud that it seems to be working.

Who are some of your comedic inspirations or influences?

My parents were big on English television, so I grew up with a lot of Monty Python, Good Neighbours, The Young Ones later. My mother and I also had every episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show memorized—like word for word. I watched a lot of Upstairs/Downstairs, Fawlty Towers—very British, and a lot of physical humor also, which for me really plays into my dance background. Knowing that physicality can tell so much of a story, as you see I do a lot in Thanksgiving Play, was really key for my development and humor. I’m doing a play at the Mark Taper Forum this summer which is a straight-up satirical farce: two flights of stairs, lots of doors, lots of ridiculous, blue jokes. And then underneath all that is a really biting satire about race.

What do you think is the key to doing satire well? Because, as you say, it’s so tricky.

It is tricky. It has to be honest. It really has to be honest. You can’t pull your punches. You can’t be afraid of things. A lot of satire actually sounds worse on the page. It’s like: Oh, can you really say that? Then you put it in context with the movement and the joke and the rhythm, the ups and downs of the satire and the humor, and it’s like, Oh, okay—that works. So you have to be that honest, and trust the honesty of it. If you pull back, then it’s not going to work. It just feels false. You have to go all the way in.

I think a lot about rhythm and release. You take your medicine, and then you get some sugar, then you take some medicine, you get some sugar–‑it goes back and forth a lot. Because with some satire, it can feel like you’re taking a lot of hits, and it can get a little tiring, actually. So you have to know what people can continue to take in, or where they start to put up barriers against what you’re trying to say. Finding where you push and where you pull back is really key.

That’s interesting. D’arcy Carden’s character, Alicia, feels like she serves the play in exactly this way, as the “sugar.” And also unexpectedly the hero. 

That’s a good example: When you see Alicia on the page, a lot of folks, especially women, will really push back against her. “What are you talking about? You can’t have her say she’s not smart. A woman who says she’s not smart?” They get really upset about it. And I say, “Just wait till you see her.” And by the end you just want to be her.

Who are some Native comedians or writers that have been inspirational for you?

There’s so many. My dear friend Darrell Dennis, who’s First Nations, I’ve known him for years, he performs comedy. He’s just so smart and so funny. Ty Defoe, who is just endlessly funny, and my friend Lōkomaikaʻi Lipscomb, a Japanese American dancer and actress that was brought up in Hawaiian culture. Those folks for sure. My 10-year-long artistic partner, Michael John Garcés—he’s not Indigenous, but he’s among the funniest people I know. He and I try to top each other with jokes all day long. We take each other’s jokes and see how far we can go. I love that.

Obviously, we have Taika Waititi, who’s Maori. We were at Sundance together. He has such a beautiful sense of really weird comedy and he brings his heart to it—that’s just so gorgeous. At that same festival Sterlin Harjo was actually one of our advisors in the Native film program at Sundance.

Sierra Ornelas, who had her show, Rutherford Falls—she’s really a queen of understanding that bridge between a kind of greater audience. She’s worked on some really big network shows, and has really Native-specific humor. She bridges that so well.

I’ve been working for a long time with the playwright Vera Starbard. Her comedy is insane. She’s got this show called Native Pride (and Prejudice), an adaptation of Austen. Her humor is just spot-on ridiculous, funny, satirical, smart.

Vickie Ramirez is a local New York writer. I think people think of her a little more for her serious things, but again, that release valve, her comedy within her writing, is really kind of amazing. And a new writer also coming up, Dillon Chitto—he’s being produced more and more. He’s got some really good comedic chops.

I could just go on and on. I’m just very inspired by all of them. It’s exciting. Because honestly—this is something I’m really pushing back against—especially in Hollywood, I get pigeonholed again and again with dark dramas. The first thing people offer me is IP with a dead Native woman or a raped Native woman. That’s the first thing I get sent. And I’m like, Ehhh, no. You know, unless I can find my way into a story like that, I’m not interested. We live that. And we’re so much more than that.

I was recently sent a book to look at with one of my collaborators that has a really dark period about boarding schools. And I was like, Well, if we can find a way to subvert this, and tell it in some way that does involve humor and satire, then I would be down. But only if we can find a way to subvert it. Because: Yes, it’s tragic, it’s true, it’s ongoing, but it’s just not something that I feel the need to keep putting on the screen. I think there’s plenty of other things that we need to grapple with first, such as…Thanksgiving! [Laughs] There’s a sense of tragedy porn to those things, a voyeurism that creeps me out. It’s very well-meaning. But there’s also a certain amount of virtue signaling. It’s like, “Look, we showed the sad dead Native people. Now we can move on.” And I’m like: Or you can do what I want to do. That’s virtuous too. This is what I’m good at. I can write 50 jokes a day. I’ve got six comedies this year. Let me do what I’m really good at, not what you want me to do.

Would you say that subversion is an essential element in Native storytelling or Native comedy today?

I’m not sure. Comedy and satire are central to what I do and how I express myself. But I will say, the other thing that always happens is—I had a show at a network recently, a show I had created, and it would be like the worst drinking game in the world: If I took a drink any time they said “tone,” I would just be dead. It was like, “I don’t understand this tone, your tone is so…” And I was like, that’s Indigenous, the comedy and the tragedy. We are living the longest black comedy in the world. The complete melding of comedy and tragedy in our lives is with us every single day and has been for centuries. So that is our tone: Our tone is comedy and tragedy, those things all mixed, that we can see something incredibly gruesome and laugh really hard and then cry and help each other and then laugh again. All those things are central to Indigenous people, at least today.

It’s always put at me, “But I can’t understand your tone, it doesn’t make sense.” And I’m like, my tone is Indigenous. It’s Native American. And no, it’s not like what you’re used to, because you’re used to white writers or whoever. You have to learn what Native American writing is. Native American writing is different.

That brings us right back to the beginning of our conversation. Thanksgiving Play undermined my standard categories for understanding it pretty systematically.

That makes me so happy!

Jim McDermott (he/him) is a freelance writer for magazines and the screen, and an editor at America magazine.

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