The Thanksgiving Play, an achingly funny satire about a white director’s attempt to construct a politically correct school play about Native Americans, has just completed a highly successful run at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The production was sponsored by Linda Busken Jergens, a Cincinnati spiritual director, writer, and the wife of retired priest the Rev. Andrew Jergens.
Playwright Larissa FastHorse, winner of the 2019 PEN/ Laura Pels Foundation Award for theater, is nationally renowned, but this is the first time the Cincinnati Playhouse has ever produced a play written by an indigenous American.
Andrew Jergens is a trustee emeritus of the Playhouse, and he and Linda meet every year with Artistic Director Blake Robison and Managing Director Buzz Ward to talk about upcoming plans. When Robison mentioned plans to produce FastHorse’s play, he said the Playhouse hadn’t yet found a sponsor; their ordinary sponsors were considering the play too controversial.
“My heart just beat – I knew this was a God thing,” Linda says, because FastHorse is a Sicangu-Lakota Sioux, whose band had a profound impact on Linda as she trained to become a spiritual director unusually daring in exploring spiritual traditions beyond those familiar to most white Episcopalians.
The heart of The Thanksgiving Play is how virtually impossible it is for Native Americans to get a word in edgewise as clueless whites continue speaking about and “for” them. Four white actors, one a director, struggle to come up with a script that assuages the director’s anxieties about being politically correct and satisfying the demands of her funders without getting fired by the local school board.
Linda volunteered to help the Playhouse find a sponsor, and ultimately decided to do it herself, directing the Playhouse to designate her sponsorship in honor of Women Writing For (a) Change, a non-profit dedicated to encouraging women and girls to claim their voice.
This sponsorship expanded community awareness of WWF(a)C through the Playhouse’s marketing for the show, as well as holding two WWF(a)C writing circles after performances of the play. Members of the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition also held several talk-back sessions after performances. This made the production doubly effective in providing a platform for people whose voice is still suppressed.
Linda’s first encounter with the Lakota Sioux was as part of an Episcopal work camp on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota in 1957. She and Andrew returned to South Dakota in 1989 to volunteer on the Rosebud Reservation at the invitation of Bishop Craig Anderson.
Linda welcomed FastHorse to Cincinnati and introduced her to the research of anthropologist Susan Meyn, who recovered the photos and correspondence of Lakota Sioux from FastHorse’s own band, who took up residence at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1896 to engage in cross-cultural discussions with residents of Cincinnati at a time of huge interest in the West.
FastHorse also asked to get acquainted with the indigenous people of this area, so Linda drew on the anthropological expertise of the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Geier Research Center and took FastHorse and members of the cast to visit Mound Builder sites around Cincinnati.
FastHorse, who was adopted by a white family as a child and now lives in California, has asked Linda to help her network with people on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations as she prepares for a residency there to work with other Lakota Sioux on a devised play – unlike The Thanksgiving Play, this time with people who know what they are talking about!
Ariel Miller is a member of Ascension & Holy Trinity, Wyoming.