Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — Image via hennepintheatretrust.org

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Minneapolis Music Theatre
Directed by Steven Meerdink

I went to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (written by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers and directed by Steven Meerdink) at the New Century Theatre this weekend largely because I read this open letter by playwright Rhiana Yazzie, and, as is the case when anyone takes a strong and impassioned stand, I wanted to see if I agreed with her. Unsurprisingly, after seeing the production, I find that there are aspects of Yazzie’s critique that resonate with me and aspects that I would like to question for the purpose of constructive dialogue.

I found Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to be well acted and rousingly performed. The ensemble did not appear to harbor one weak voice. Philip C. Matthews made for a vivaciously infuriating Andrew Jackson and Aly Westberg a lovable if dopey Rachel Jackson. Lucas Skyraret’s costumes were grungy and hip, and Daren T. Hensel’s set was perfect, speckled with the sort of faded kitschy Americana you might find in your great grandma’s attic.

There were a few scenes where the show pushed the irony a little too far, such as the one in which Jackson’s parents die in grandly exaggerated form, but thankfully these moments were rare. I can imagine that the urge to be ironic beyond the point of tolerance in a show that relies so heavily on satire would be hard to resist, but certainly the performance was much stronger when it exposed its heart, such as when Jackson challenges entrenched politicians or expresses love for Rachel. Similarly, some of the jokes were quite funny while also successfully exposing past injustices, such as when Rachel absurdly sings about how she “always thought she would live in a house with a dog and some kids and some slaves and a mat on the door that said welcome,” but other jokes fell flat, such as the whole exchange between Jackson and a female fan about “tea bagging.” This being said, the jokes that flopped were, I believe, more a defect in the writing than in the performers’ abilities.

Certainly Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is offensive, but in a self-aware way. Does this “excuse” it? Well, that depends on something much larger than the musical itself. Interpretations will rely largely upon what one thinks the limits of comedic satire should be. Whereas Yazzie dismisses the “equal opportunity offender” explanation people often give when justifying the obvious racism in the musical, likening it to television shows such as South Park and Family Guy, I do feel that this comparison is at least somewhat apt. While Jackson and his cronies undoubtedly denigrate American Indians more than any other group and often seem mean-spirited just for the sake of being mean-spirited, Jackson similarly demonizes men who don’t live up to his notions of hardscrabble masculinity (including the Spaniards, the British, and the first six U.S. presidents). Indeed all of these men, despite subtleties they may be afforded in the script, are lumped together by Jackson as effeminate, ineffectual fops and presumed homosexuals. Similarly, all the women in the show, with the possible exception of Rachel, are portrayed as vacuous, ditzy groupies. Oh, and Jackson also shoots a lesbian in a wheelchair in the neck.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — Image via hennepintheatretrust.orgEven though I found the abuse a little more widely distributed than Yazzie seemed to, there were certainly moments during the musical, after particularly tasteless jokes didn’t land well, when I couldn’t help but think that it is quite a lot easier to hear horrible things coming out of the mouths of animated cartoon characters than it is to hear actual humans standing a few feet away from me spewing such hatred. But the fact that parts of the musical made me uncomfortable is not necessarily a reason for the musical to not be performed. One of the reasons people go to the theater is to be shocked and provoked because these sorts of reactions are often the first step toward thoughtful reflection. And yes, as a white viewer, I understand that my “discomfort” may pale in comparison to the grief and anger certain parts of the musical might elicit in some Native American viewers. Indeed, being made uncomfortable by certain aspects of history, as opposed to having been directly negatively affected by them, is a position of immense privilege. At the same time, our country’s history being what it is, different types of people will always have different ways of accessing the past and differing amounts of power when doing so, and while discomfort felt while viewing a theatrical performance is clearly not the same as the grief caused by partial cultural obliteration, both can serve as catalysts for dialogue and increased understanding of the many marks America has left on all of us (even though the severity of these marks varies widely).

Yazzie goes on to state that Bloody Bloody “finds any and all opportunities to berate [the] Indian characters Jackson encounters” and that, as a Navajo woman, she is left feeling “assaulted, manipulated and devastatingly used as a means to a weak and codependent end.” While I understand what it feels like to feel personally attacked by a piece of art, I would caution against conflating the character of Andrew Jackson with the musical itself. The fact is that the bulk of the show’s offensive comments come from Jackson himself, and Jackson is largely depicted as an undereducated boor — a man who, at best, is an impulsive hothead, and, at worst, an unreflecting agent of genocide. Of course his comments are barbaric (a word he likes to hurl at Native Americans), and his actions are even worse, but this doesn’t mean that the musical endorses them.

Of course, one might ask, if the show is critical of Jackson, why does he get depicted as a rock star? Well, largely because Bloody Bloody is a rock musical and he is the star. But being a rock star does not preclude being a dick. Yes, he may sing some catchy tunes in his emo-boy jeans, but he also belches in people’s faces, forces two women to kiss for his own entertainment, spreads lies about fellow politicians, and brags about the many types of hepatitis he has. He mocks men he believes to be homosexuals, and he discards the requests of his wife to her great detriment. None of these things are on par with his treatment of Native Americans, of course, but my point is that the musical goes to some pretty great lengths to make him a character worthy of the audience’s ire.

Yazzie comments further that the musical does not provide a hypothetical Native youth with a safe and pleasurable theater experience. This is absolutely correct. As aforementioned, Jackson (who kills more people than anyone else in the musical) constantly refers to American Indian characters as “savages” without being contradicted by anyone, and, were I the mother of a child of any race, I would not want them seeing this. Nor would I want my gay child to see the clichéd depictions of lisping dandies, my female child to see the lineup of bimbos, or my male child to see American masculinity defined by ruthless violence. But the musical is not for children. It is for adults who, the writers assume, have the intelligence to realize that the characteristics that comprise each character are ridiculously overblown.

Another one of Yazzie’s claims that rings completely true mentions the musical’s historical inaccuracy. I’m not sure what to say about this except that a lot of art is historically inaccurate, and most savvy patrons know not to take what they read or see as gospel. This being said, Timbers’ original script depicted Jackson’s parents being murdered by American Indians (a historical inaccuracy) as a way of establishing and “explaining” Jackson’s deep-seeded mistrust of indigenous people, and Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production instead depicts Jackson’s parents dying from cholera, which may also be inaccurate for all I know but avoids blaming Native Americans for something they did not do. I’m not sure whose decision this was, but it seems like a small gesture to address some of the musical’s more harmful distortions of historical fact.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — Image via hennepintheatretrust.orgWhile I don’t fully agree with Yazzie when she states (borrowing from the musical’s marketing materials) that Jackson is portrayed as an “all sexy pants” rock star, I do concur that the musical may not be exactly sure how it stands on Jackson, who is fighting the forces of tyranny at one moment and spewing vitriolic racism at the next, but seeing as many historians and biographers are equally unsure of how to classify Jackson, this confusion seems forgivable. Yazzie would likely cringe at the thought of “audience members question[ing] over cocktails whether or not Andrew Jackson was an American Hitler,” and I am completely sympathetic to why the thought of indigenous history being treated in such a blasé way would get her goat, but is the cocktail discussion worse than no (or, at best, very little) dialogue whatsoever? Is raising questions without answering them always harmful?

Near the end of the musical, Jackson tells Black Fox (Christian Unser), his American Indian collaborator, “I wish you’d built symphonies in cities, man, and put on plays and showed yourselves to be a little more essential. You know, to the culture? And yea, you totally were here first, absolutely, but we don’t give a shit, and we never will. Because the day we arrived, we saw it, we wanted it, and frankly it was easier to believe it was ours.” Whereas Yazzie interprets these lines as a joke that she is not allowed to be in on, I read them as an (albeit oversimplified) look at the type of attitude that made the persecution of Native Americans possible in the first place. Jackson assumes that American Indians have no culture (while also assuming that each tribe’s culture is the same) because what he sees does not conform to his perception of culture. He is quick to label difference as non-essentialness, and he unquestionably assumes that the land rightfully belongs to white settlers. Unlike Yazzie, I don’t think this part of the musical is jokey or ironic at all. I think, despite its slangy tone, it’s indicative of common nineteenth century white attitudes toward indigenous people. And I think it can only be good for audiences of all races to be aware of these.

Yazzie and I diverge once more on our readings of the musical number “Ten Little Indians,” which she interprets as a song in which “Indian characters are coerced into or are gladly signing their lands away for smallpox blankets and dream catchers — dream catchers? Any Minnesotan should know that’s Ojibwe not Cherokee. Then after hearing nine ways in which Indians are killed it’s reveal [sic] that the last death is a hanging.” While there are certainly mentions of dream catchers and manipulative treaties in the dialogue of the show, the song itself depicts American Indians being executed, contracting syphilis, converting to Christianity, being burned or shot, pleading with the government for a fair deal, joining a sideshow, fighting off disease, and committing suicide. These are all clearly actions the U.S. government and white settlement are responsible for, and setting the song to the children’s song “Ten Little Indians” (which I, probably along with many other American children, was taught as a child) attests to the way detestable history is altered and ignored in order to create safe and happy worlds for middle and upper class children. If, as Yazzie suggests, “nursery rhymes like this have socialized generations of children to believe that Native people were expendable and that there was no need to empathize with them” Friedman’s version must surely do something to rectify this.

Despite the fact that Yazzie and I have fairly different takes on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, I am grateful to her for her thoughtful analysis of the musical. It has helped me formulate my own reaction to the show, and has caused me to think more deeply about it than I would have otherwise.

One criticism I have of Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production, one that is particularly unfortunate given the above discussion, is the lack of visible actors of color. Part of this is the musical’s fault and not the production’s. There are several mentions of the fact that the Jacksons owned slaves. How hard would it have been for Friedman and Timbers to write some of these slaves into the script? A few songs about what it felt like to be owned by someone who claimed to want liberty and equality for all would have widened the scope of the musical and easily conformed to its ironic tone. Secondly, all the Native American characters were played by what appeared to be white actors. It is quite possible that, given the protests Bloody Bloody has elicited amongst some Native American arts groups in the Twin Cities, that no indigenous actor wanted to come within fifty feet of the production, and simply did not audition. However, I can’t help thinking that what I said earlier about the musical inspiring dialogue might be more likely to happen if there were interactions occurring on stage between people of different ethnicities. What’s more, I would have been interested to see how the inclusion of actors of color might have altered or challenged the musical’s attempts to be ironically offensive. Would some of the hip self-awareness have crumbled? If so, this could have been interesting to witness, and a tremendous conversation starter.

No matter where your opinion of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson falls, you will have one, and you will keep adding to it, adjusting it, and changing it for days after you see it. The show runs until June 29, and on June 19 there will be an after-show discussion geared particularly toward the treatment of American Indians in the musical. I encourage you to attend both.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.