In just her second year at the artistic helm of Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company, Tammy Brown pulled off a spectacular coup. She landed playwright Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play for their 2022 fall season offering, before the play opens on Broadway in the spring. For a theater with a proximity this close to New York City, getting the rights to a play headed to the Great White Way is staggering. How did she do it?
“I have no idea,” she says, before cracking a huge smile.
Back in April, Brown realized she had a season hole to plug in the October/November slot. She had read FastHorse’s play over the pandemic when she was reading “a play a day” to keep busy and also satisfy the theater’s robust diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements. She says she just stumbled on it during her search, and the story, about a group of progressive white folks attempting to put on a play about Thanksgiving, resonated.
“I’m an activist outside of the theater and I’m friends with a lot of well-meaning white people,” she explains, saying when she first read the play, she kept thinking, those are my friends.
In The Thanksgiving Play, four people are tasked with creating a family-friendly production about the holiday. All are trying to do it with the utmost sensitivity. But when the director realizes the actor she assumed is Native American is actually white, a meltdown ensues. How do you tell a historically accurate story about oppression without the voice of the oppressed? “The play is satirizing the left from the point of view of someone on the left. It understands this is done with good intentions but it’s gone awry,” explains Brown, who says she laughed out loud several times while she read the script.
Brown is one of the few women of color in an artistic leadership position in American theater, a prospect that is at once exhilarating and daunting. It also makes her acutely aware of the inequities within the broader nonprofit theater landscape, admitting to some discomfort directing the work because she is not a Native person.
Ironically, that’s the exact issue The Thanksgiving Play satirizes. “Do we not do this because we can’t do this perfectly?” Brown asks rhetorically. “Or do we do this imperfect version intentionally?”
Brown hopes members of the Narragansett Nation will see the play, while at the same time she also worries about asking too much from the community. “I hear the conversations about emotional labor. We can’t expect marginalized persons to do the work for us. But I want to invite them in, to welcome them,” she says, noting there is a space for the community at CTC, which has worked hard to create a culture of inclusion, including offering free tuition to summer camps and classes for tribal members. “Our goal is to have the theater be a strong engine for antiracism and inclusion,” Brown continues. “The journey is figuring out how to do that.”
The Thanksgiving Play runs through November 12 at Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company. ContemporaryTheaterCompany.com
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