|Written by Rhiana Yazzie, New Native Theatre,
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Minnesota know itself well enough to responsibly produce a show like
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?” The title makes the play sound
like a fun, maybe even gory, critique of our seventh president, about
whom most Americans have heard contradictory ideas. Whether or not
we've investigated the subject, it sounds like attending this play
will likely cast a clearer light on a shadowy part of American
history, one that might include a critique of the spectacular
violence waged from 1829-1837 by the slave-holding president dubbed
play will take Andrew Jackson's campaign of ethnic cleansing head on?
Maybe it will acknowledge the thousands of Native Americans he
killed. As a Native American, a playwright, a musical theater fan and
artistic director of New Native Theatre, I say right on. What a
wonderful opportunity and contribution to American theatre to see a
play responsibly take up these important issues, issues that have
determined Native American inclusion and access. We need as many
advocates in the media as we can get.
not what happens, instead this script, written by J. Michael Friedman
and Alex Timbers reinforces stereotypes and leaves me assaulted,
manipulated and devastatingly used as a means to a weak and
On June 6,
2014, Minneapolis Musical Theatre opens “Bloody Bloody Andrew
Jackson,” a co-production with the Hennepin Theatre Trust. It's
taken four years for any company in the Twin Cities to approach this
offensive play since it debuted in New York in 2010.
be because in Minnesota we have a relationship with Native Americans
and their experience collectively embraced? Could it be that we know
our history, the legacy of the vicious founding of this state and its
violent dealings with Native Americans? Could it also be because
Minneapolis is home to the founding of the American Indian Movement?
Could it be for these reasons we can see that the play is an exercise
in racial slurs against Native Americans justified with a thin
coating of white shaming? Why would we together be bothered with it
it will be performed and the character Andrew Jackson written by Alex
Timbers and J. Michael Freedman will spew unchallenged racial
epithets five times a week on soil that is still yet recovering from
our own troubled history. Soil where blood has been spilled and land
has been taken and people have been shoved aside. There is nothing
about this history that is "all sexy pants," to quote the
marketing machine that accompanied this show.
is that Andrew Jackson was not a rock star and his campaign against
tribal people – known so briefly in American history textbooks as
the Indian Removal Act is not a farcical backdrop to some emotive,
brooding celebrity. Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was
portrayed as a justified, sexy rock star? This play exacerbates the
already deficient knowledge our country has when it comes to Native
history; in that context, a false story about this country and our
engagement with Native American people is unforgivable.
I saw this
play when it debuted at the Public Theater in New York in 2010 and
was invited to speak with the authors among a group of other Native
American artists to openly discuss the play's inaccurate history and
depiction of Native Americans. It was dubbed as an Emo rock musical
paralleling George W. Bush's rise to power and the following Tea
Minneapolis Musical Theatre producer and director, Steven Meerdink
says, "this show really falls short on is its lack of
transparency of the fact that it does not try to accurately present
historical events and figures. The authors deliberately skew,
distort, satirize, blur, and condense roughly 60 years of history
into a 90 minute play. There are things presented in the play that
never actually occurred, and many other things presented that may
have occurred - but with dates, circumstances, or relevant people
changed." Meerdink says this will appear in a program note.
common defense of the play is that it's a South Park kind of
aesthetic, therefore it's an equal opportunity defacer. Meerdink
echoes what I've heard the authors and original producers say in
person and in print, "There are ugly things said about many
groups of people in the show – the British, the Spanish, Native
Americans and European Americans." But Sesame Street has me
thinking, one of these things is not like the other.
time the British are depicted, they are flogging Jackson. But in that
scene Jackson never once makes a racially based insult. When the
Spanish are introduced, again, not one racial remark made to insult
them. Instead they are simply and accurately called Spaniards.
But in the
introduction to this roundhouse fight with them, Jackson begins a
joke, "Tell me what's the difference between a little homosexual
Indian boy and George Washington? Besides the fact you'd murder
either of them without thinking twice?" This joke goes
unchallenged except for the Spaniards calling back, "You are the
authors may have thought this was a joke, perhaps even the producers
and the majority of the audience in New York when it premiered did
too. But in Minnesota, it's not funny at all. Maybe in the world Alex
Timbers and J. Michael Freedman live in, Indians are not targets of
racial violence today. Maybe the murder rate of Native Americans in
their world isn't astronomical.
their world, gay Native Americans don't have the highest suicide and
murder rate in the entire country. Then again, maybe they are right,
these unfortunate Indians are murdered without a second thought.
Maybe that's the political comment they were hoping to make with this
scene and asking their audience to be aware of and call for a change?
these moments of unchallenged cruelties raged against Native
Americans that leave me pained, even more so than the untrue history.
I want so badly to be on the same side as the authors, I know they
want to prove Jackson was a troubled character in American history
with a terribly violent, unstable, genocidal mind.
the line? Where is the satire?
the only instance where stage directions give insight to the authors'
points of view. After Jackson's parents are killed, "Three young
Indian boys enter and dance around … taunting [Jackson] all the
while and pretending to shoot arrows at him. They're really fucking
annoying." Because this is the post Broadway publication, I
can't help but wonder if there is an allusion to the protests the
authors got from real Native Americans; and if not, it certainly sets
up what is yet come out of Jackson's mouth. You Indians have "No
artistic vision. You're savages! You're soulless, Godless and well
you get the point." The play finds any and all opportunities to
berate Indian characters Jackson encounters.
watching/reading the play means putting up with 85 minutes of racist
tirades before getting to the last five minutes of white guilt. Well,
thank goodness it's a musical and I can at least enjoy tapping my
toes, at least up until Ten Little Indians. Children's songs and
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; it was also used to attack African Americans
and to envision a future that doesn't include adult Native or African
Little Indians, ridiculous, inane, powerless 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 that the last death is a
does that land here in Minnesota? Our state holds the record for the
largest mass hanging in U.S. history when 38 Dakota men were executed
play nears its end, finally, Jackson doesn't relent on his nauseating
remarks about Native people and their culture. To justify his
defiance of the Supreme Court ruling that removal of tribes from
their land was illegal and unconstitutional, Jackson implores a
Native character Black Fox, "I wish you'd built symphonies in
cities, man, and put on plays and showed yourselves a little more
essential. You know, to the culture? And yeah, you totally were here
first, absolutely, but we don't give a shit, and we never will."
authors had any understanding of contemporary Native American culture
or artists, would they have been so quick to make such debasing
statements about Native Americans. Because, let's face it, these
comments are not about Indians in 1838, this is about their sense of
the absence and extinction of Native peoples right now. Perhaps this
says less about the authors themselves and more about the erasure of
Native history in this country. But as artists, who are political,
and intentionally incendiary in so much of the body of their work,
there's no excuse for this ignorance and there's no excuse for the
way this ignorance is suffused throughout this play.
to be a better way to make a political point. The first step is to be
smarter about your subject matter. Learn about the culture you're
trying to make a point about. Ask yourself, how are contemporary
people living with this historical legacy?
don't know what Native American artists are doing right now here in
our state, go to All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis, see great
Native American fine art. There's nothing primitive about it and
there never was. See shows at my company, New Native Theatre, we
could produce four original musicals with the budget “Bloody Bloody
Andrew Jackson” has, with work about, by, and for Native Americans
that honors our cultures, our traditions, and broadens our
understanding of American history.
dance by Emily Johnson and Rosy Simas. Listen to First Person Radio
on KFAI. Read The Circle News. Or, look just 300 miles north
to Thunder Bay where Northwest Ontario's largest regional company,
Magnus Theatre has a mandate to produce at least one First Nations
play a year from Canada's ever growing canon of thriving Aboriginal
I grew up
in New Mexico where Native American culture is very visible. Most of
the normal markers of New Mexican culture take directly from the
architecture, iconography, and Native artists of the tribes that have
continuously lived there for time immemorial. New Mexico is not
perfect in its relationship with tribes, but certainly the dominant
culture in New Mexico embraces it, identifies with it, and protects
should be proud that this state is where so many great contemporary
Native American leaders have lived and worked. Those living in
Minneapolis should be especially proud that only a few weeks ago
Columbus Day was changed to Indigenous Peoples Day following the
example of Red Wing which made the change a few months earlier.
Perhaps the entire State of Minnesota will come next. These are
things to be proud of and these are the ways we as Minnesotans can
turn our trajectory from the violent past that was the founding of
this state to a more equitable home for all.
Minnesota, its audiences and artists, at that point yet of supporting
Native Americans and defending their humanity in the way that
audience did when I was a kid?
I hope so.
I think it
was an unfortunate choice for Minneapolis Musical Theatre to produce
this play and I have no doubt they played into the same disconnect
the authors did, not considering the effect it could have on real
people or that Native Americans might actually be audience members.
However, my call to action lies more with the authors who will
continue to profit from productions of this play. Their royalties
should go to places that actively do the work of dealing with Andrew
Jackson's legacy – like the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource
Center, Ain Dah Yung shelter for homeless Native youth, the Minnesota
Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, or many of the other worthy
organizations directly serving Native people – and don't engage in
the play's same laissez-faire attitude of lightly encouraging
audiences members to question over cocktails whether or not Andrew
Jackson was an American Hitler while aggressively dehumanizing the
people Jackson tormented. Because, he was.