‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ draws protest in Minneapolis

People are gathering outside New Century Theatre in Minneapolis tonight to protest the opening of the musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."

The rock musical depicts the life of President Jackson, whose Indian Removal Act of 1830 led to the brutal and forced relocation of several Native American nations that killed thousands.

Philip C. Matthews stars as Andrew Jackson in Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” (Photo by Laurie Etchen)

Playwright and theater director Rhiana Yazzie said when she first heard about the musical, she was excited to see it.

"I think all of us native people thought, 'Alright! Somebody's taking on Andrew Jackson,' but the thing is, the way that they had gone about it, it was obvious that they didn't know that native people still existed," Yazzie said. "It's more like talking about Indians as if we were the Dodo bird."

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Yazzie said the play distorts history -- including claiming that Jackson's parents were killed by Indians, which they were not -- and reinforces damaging stereotypes.

"The cruelties that come out of Andrew Jackson’s mouth, the things that happen – they go unchecked throughout the entire play," Yazzie said. "And you know there's a rule with comedy – you have your rule of threes – a quip, a quip and a punch line. And when you're talking about an oppressed group you'll bring up the stereotype, you'll say something really horrible but then the punch line changes the power dynamic. But the play doesn't do that at all, it just goes on with these tirades against native people."

Yazzie said she was dumbfounded when she learned that Minneapolis Musical Theatre and Hennepin Theatre Trust were producing the show in the Twin Cities.

"I thought as Minnesotans -- because of our relationship to Native people, because of our history with Native people --  that people would know better, people would know that this is an offensive play is offensive, and that there would probably be native people in the audience," Yazzie said.

Michael Freedman and Alex Timbers, the co-creators of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, wrote the following in their licensing notes:

The Native Americans: While this show is not politically correct by any measure, the depiction of Native Americans throughout the musical should be done tastefully and respectfully. One of our intentions in writing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was to explore our collective national responsibility towards a genocide that most Americans seem to forget, ignore, or, perhaps worst, have collectively come to peace with. To portray the Native Americans as cartoons or old Hollywood stereotypes undermines the message of the show.

Daniel Tenenbaum, board chair of Minneapolis Musical Theatre, said he was not aware of the protests that took place in New York during the run of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." He did not know there had been any controversy around the play until Yazzie contacted the company a few weeks ago. He said MMT chose the production because the show fit his company's mission.

"The musical got critical acclaim on Broadway, and it felt like something that needed to have an audience here. It has an edgy rock feel to it, and that's something we've found our audiences enjoy at MMT and so it landed on the short list for show selection last year," Tenenbaum said.

Tenenbaum said MMT hasn't done anything in the production that might add to someone's concerns about it, but they are limited by copyright from altering the play to respond to critics concerns.

"Would it be better if we were producing work that everyone just loved and no one was ever bothered by it? Sure... but it's art, right? Art sometimes offends people," he said.

Tenenbaum said MMT is planning to host a discussion after the June 19 performance.

"We're open to hearing all different viewpoints," he said."We're basically trying to encourage whatever dialogue there is. We are glad that there are conversations in the community like this."

Rhiana Yazzie said perhaps if there were larger numbers of Native Americans around to protest, the Minneapolis Musical Theatre would take their concerns more seriously.

But of course Andrew Jackson took care of that.

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" runs through June 29 at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis. Protestors plan to gather tonight at 6 p.m.