The other history, laughter included

DeLanna Studi's "And So We Walked" and Larissa FastHorse's "The Thanksgiving Play" showcase the indigenous side of the American story

Holidays, especially those steeped in notions of national identity, breed all manner of rituals. For instance, in The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse, getting its world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre, the character Alicia recalls the family tradition that “came from my mom’s people.” They called it Frozen Turkey Bowling, and the ritual entailed buying an extra frozen bird and rolling it down the driveway to knock over wood blocks.

My prized, personal Thanksgiving tradition, adopted over the past decade, is simply to post the same video again to my Facebook page. It’s an unpolished little clip of the brilliant comedy trio the Apple Sisters performing Pilgrim/Indian Song, their pointed pocket history of white settlement in what came to be these United States. In just a few high-stepping stanzas, the Pilgrims move from beseeching (“Come on, chap, tell a pal: How’d you get that harvest?”) to blunt (“Hey there, Injuns. Get off your land!”), and the grandness of the theft is summed up with a brief but stirringly patriotic coda: “And that’s America!”

Viewed with even a smidgen of equitable perspective, the history of European colonization and expansion is shameful. As S.C. Gwynne puts it, merely in passing, in Empire of the Summer Moon, his book about the rise and fall of the Comanches, “(n)o tribe…ever managed to resist for very long the surge of nascent American civilization with its harquebuses and blunderbusses and muskets and eventually its lethal repeating weapons and its endless stocks of eager, land-greedy settlers, its elegant moral double standards and its complete disregard for native interests.”

So, yes, shameful. But the narrative of the victors calls for celebration, so instead it’s feast and football.

To really be heard above the clatter of the carving knife, anyone trying to revise that narrative might be wise to not get all Howard Zinn about it. Sometimes it’s better just to serve up the funny bone.

And oh my, is FastHorse’s play funny! A delicious lampooning of the challenges faced by “enlightened white allies” in the realm of racial identity politics, it plays with cultural assumptions and garden-variety miscommunication, with the complicated nature of cultural equity and fair representation, and above all with the sometimes tortured logic of liberal white guilt. Without dismissing anyone’s good intentions, FastHorse pokes fun at what we might call (to employ the horrid term currently in fashion) the burden of the “woke.”

As one of her characters, the starry-eyed progressive Jaxton, says wearily, “I’m a straight, white male: It’s an endless minefield.”

Jaxton, played by Michael O’Connell like an emissary from the reform wing of bro culture, is joined in his pursuit of political purity by Logan (Sarah Lucht, as a bundle of nerves wrapped loosely in lifelong disappointment), a drama teacher whose striving for significance — such as a production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh with 15-year-olds — has her on the verge of being fired. She hopes to turn things around, with the help of a variety of cultural-sensitivity grants, by creating a show for grade schoolers that both celebrates Thanksgiving and honors Native American heritage.

Sarah Lucht (left) and Claire Rigsby in “The Thanksgiving Play.” Photo” Russell J Young

Complications ensue.

Her designated history expert, an elementary-school teacher who longs for the stage, brings unrealistic expectations and information overload. But Logan’s big problem is that the actress she’s hired to be the project’s Native American cultural compass turns out (minor spoiler alert) merely to have used a head shot that featured her wearing braids and turquoise jewelry. How four white people can credibly represent a Native American perspective is the crisis that drives the action. Meanwhile the convoluted analyses fly. “We’re post the post-racial society,” Jaxton observes sagely. “We see color, but we don’t speak for it.”

Under the direction of Luan Schooler, there’s terrific comic work all around, but some of the finest, subtlest moments come from Chris Harder as Caden, the button-downed historian and enthusiastic thespian wanna-be. For instance, when Logan says, “Let’s start with some improv,” the look of panic that flashes across Harder’s face tells you volumes about the fault line between Caden’s dreams and his comfort zone. While Harder shows us someone hidebound by thinking, Claire Rigsby’s Alicia, the faux-Indian actress, shines with the pure light of the simplistic, content with her role in life as attention-grabbingly hot, blissfully untroubled by a lack of intellect she freely acknowledges (“I’ve been tested,” she says cheerfully). Rigsby brings a kind of soft glow to the role that’s half Hollywood hollowness, half Zen enlightenment, and Alicia’s blithe freedom from the ethical yoga knots that Logan and Jaxton demand of themselves is one of the play’s most telling threads, hinting at a conclusion that asks us to ponder the responsible point between everything and nothing.

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DeLanna Studi in “And So We Walked.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Alicia from The Thanksgiving Play isn’t really a Native American actress, but DeLanna Studi is. She’s graced Oregon stages several times before—in a touring Broadway production of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, in the same play at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and over the past two seasons at Portland Center Stage in the historical epic Astoria.

One of the characters she portrayed in Astoria is of mixed white and Native American parentage, and so is Studi herself. “One question I get all the time: ‘How much Indian are you?’,” she says early on in And So We Walked, the solo show she’s just opened in Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio. After a pause that speaks volumes, she adds, “There’s not enough time in this show to unpack that question.”

In a way, though, that’s just what Studi does unpack during her two-act tale of retracing the infamous Trail of Tears with her Cherokee father.

“This is my story, and how it was written in blood,” Studi intones early on. That sort of gravity, and the subject matter itself, set you up to expect a grim recounting of yet another chapter in the sad story started (if that word ever quite applies in history) by those Pilgrims of Thanksgiving lore. Instead, And So We Walked is much more a contemporary accounting. It’s the story of how Studi comes to terms with herself as, in her varied words, a “card-carrying Indian” and a “half-breed,” and as someone trying to reconcile a deep-rooted cultural identity with the peripatetic lifestyle and psychological shapeshifting demanded of a working actor.

And while And So We Walked is by no means the laugh fest that The Thanksgiving Play is, it is surprisingly, engagingly humorous, in a way that’s not so much light-hearted as clear-eyed.

The statuesque Studi shows us plenty of her own stubborn pride and half-hidden vulnerability, but that shapeshifting skill shows itself in her embodiment of numerous other characters, most vividly her taciturn, no-nonsense father, who appears to walk by slinging himself forward by each alternating shoulder, and her on-off love interest Steve, also half-Cherokee, who conveys as much with a self-assured upward nod of the head as with any of his honeyed but ultimately hollow words.

As directed by Corey Madden, Studi’s performance is bundled in scenic and lighting/projection designs (by John Coyne and Norman Coates, respectively) that evoke verdant woods, open prairies, passing clouds and, poignantly, shreds of paper like treaties torn and disregarded. The narrative is discursive (we’re into the second act before Studi and her father even start on their trip), and there are frequent digressions into dream visitations from her ancestors that can seem abrupt and require extra attention to follow.

Overall, though, it’s a compelling piece of theater that brings a deeply personal context to a story of displacement, genocide and perseverance. As one of Studi’s fellow Cherokee tells her, “We walked because we had to. And so we walked. But what kept us walking was the hope for a future.”

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