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Things get pretty crazy when four Caucasians try to create a Thanksgiving play without Native Americans.
Arts Review

Two Plays: One Historical, One Hysterical

Two plays currently on Sacramento stages take very different approaches to the early days before the United States was born. One — the historical one — is “1776,” about the Constitutional Convention that resulted in our Declaration of Independence. The other — the funny one — is “The Thanksgiving Play,” a modern tale about the difficulty of telling the story of the first Thanksgiving in a politically correct way.

Historical

Chautauqua Playhouse is celebrating the birth of our nation with a revolutionary production of the musical “1776.” All the roles are played by women. Yes, Ben and John and Tom are portrayed by females – and they’re very good, both as actors and singers.

A large and talented cast of 18 tells the story of the Continental Congress that – through heat and bugs and disagreements – crafted the document that brought forth this country.

It wasn’t an easy birth, as these midwives to the delivery testify. There was John Hancock (Linda Taylor), trying to maintain order among the bickering delegates, and John Adams (Vicki Fortini), pushing ever forward toward an agreement. Ben Franklin (Ruth Robbins-Phillips), intelligent and too cerebral for his own good, is a difficult dude to deal with, while Thomas Jefferson (Celia Green) is a quiet young man who misses his wife so much he agrees to write the document in exchange for a conjugal visit! “He Plays the Violin” is a clever – and just a little bit naughty — tune about Tom and Martha (Rachael Sherman-Shockley) after the mate arrives in Philadelphia.

Among other standouts in the talented cast are Erin Renfree, who plays Virginian Richard Henry Lee and Abigail Adams, wife of John, and Hazel Johnson, who brings the right solemnness to Rev. Witherspoon.

Fortini, who plays Adams perfectly, is a real-life history teacher and John Adams expert. She says a few liberties were taken with the facts but the musical mostly gets its facts right.

So there, you can see the play and call it a history lesson.  Rodger Hoopman and Warren Harrison co-direct.

“1776” plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 22 at the Chautauqua Playhouse in the La Sierra Community Center, 5325 Engle Road, in Carmichael. Tickets are $21-$23. For more information, call (916) 489-7529 or go to CPlayhouse.org.

Hysterical

Capital Stage presents the Sacramento premiere of “The Thanksgiving Play” by Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse. Author of several other plays, FastHorse has had difficulty getting them produced because her characters are Native Americans, and there are few companies that can afford to cast and import indigenous actors and, of course, are reluctant to cast non-Natives in the roles. So, here comes “The Thanksgiving Play” in which all four characters are Caucasian.

The play mocks the attempts of a group of four artists – but by extension all theater groups – to deal with the indigenous “problem” of telling the story of the first Thanksgiving without any – to use the non-PC term – Indians in it. The satire is nothing short of hilarious as the four attempt to create an ethnically sensitive play to celebrate both Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month.

Logan (the hilarious Jennifer LeBlanc) is a high school drama teacher who has won a Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art grant to create the play with a professional actor. She hires Alicia (Gabby Battista) based on a headshot of the actress in braids, wearing a headband and turquoise jewelry. The problem: Alicia is a Caucasian who is “ethnic looking,” depending upon costume and how she’s photographed. Both actors are excellent, LeBlanc letting her character grow more frazzled as the play progresses and Battista playing the stereotypical vacant Southern California actor that playwright FastHorse must have relished writing.

The men in the cast are strong, as well. Jaxton (Cassidy Brown) is Logan’s boyfriend, a yoga instructor and street performer. He’s a vegan, so a story that involves a turkey dinner is not something he’d gobble up. Completing the foursome is Caden (Jouni Kirjola), an elementary history teacher and fledgling playwright with Broadway aspirations. He comes prepared with stacks of research and wants to start the play in Europe 4,000 years before the Pilgrims. Logan has to point out that it’s a children’s half-hour play they’re creating.

Their brainstorming sessions become more and more ridiculous as insensitivity and honest ignorance clash with good intentions. Michael Stevenson directs the madness.

“The Thanksgiving Play” is at Capital Stage, 2215 J St., through July 22. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are  $28-$40. For tickets or for more information, call (916) 995-5464 or go to CapStage.org.

Photo by Charr Crail

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About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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