Hennepin Theatre Trust Celebrates Andrew Jackson in Musical
Monday, July 07 2014
Written by Alfred Walking Bull,
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web-hennepin theatre trust celebrates andrew jackson in musical 1.jpgArt imitated life after a June 19 performance of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a production of the Hennepin Theatre Trust that portrays the exploits of the U.S. president responsible for the Trail of Tears.

In the run up to the performance, New Native Theatre's Rhiana Yazzie organized a protest of the musical after she wrote an open letter about the play. In the letter, she decried the organization's choice of subject matter, “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.”

In the production, references to Native American culture included the 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?" In addition, Yazzie objected to the fact that Native characters were portrayed by non-Native actors who were written as stoic and speaking in a halting manner. Additional references to Native culture included the character of Andrew Jackson (played by Philip C. Matthews), disparaging Native art and music with a declarative, “Your music sucks.”

After initial protest attempts, Yazzie was then invited to watch what she believed to be a heavily-edited version of the musical that was to be performed for the remainder of the production's run. But in a talk-back session after the June 19 performance, which included Yazzie and University of Minnesota history professor David Chang, Minneapolis Music Theatre artistic director Steven Meerdink said the show was shown in its entirety.

“That was an error with an actor remembering lines, we were dealing with an awful lot that opening weekend with an actor being hurt. I did not touch the script,” Meerdink said. When Yazzie expressed her disappointment, he defended the non-profit's position as artistic freedom. “I respect your opinion, however, when I think that when I first got ahold of the script, I viewed this not as a retelling of an exact history and not a slam, degradation, of the Native American population. I was looking at the show more as a political statement of politics in general.”

Chang presented a counterpoint, saying, “Respect is a process and not simply a word said after the fact. Respect is something that's shown through speaking with someone when the time has come to speak and after when all decisions have been made.” To which, Meerdink said, “As an artist, I don't have a right to do what I want to do on stage? That's my second amendment right [sic].”

Yazzie expressed her disappointment in the unedited musical's performance because of what she and other Native audience members believed to be the continued exclusion of perspective.

“The sad part, though, is that it's a party of the genocide of my people and when you actually live that and you actually survive that – I don't know, I hope and what I was actually kind of thankful for when I saw that version was that, 'Minneapolis gets Native people. Because we work with Native people, we have 11 reservations here, our friends are Native people and we wouldn't put up with saying those things about Native people.' And so, I actually was really happy to see that version,” Yazzie said.

“All I really wanted to say was that reaching out to the Native community and Native artists would have enriched this production. Because ultimately if the point is to talk about the history of what happened to Native people, wouldn't it be lovely to get to know them in the process?”

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” ran at the New Century Theatre from June 6-29. It was written by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers, directed by Steven Meerdink.

PHOTO: New Native Theatre's Rhiana Yazzie (center) explains the position that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” revels in its stereotypical portrayal of Native American history to Steven Meerdink (left) as University of Minnesota history professor David Chang (right) listens. [Photo by Alfred Walking Bull]

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