Too Controversial for Stanford

The musical "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson," which links popularity of seventh president to his ordering mass killings of Native Americans, is called off after complaints from Native American students.

November 24, 2014
A student performs in a production of "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" at Washington University in St. Louis.

As a satirical, rock n' roll take on President Andrew Jackson's controversial life and presidency, past productions of the musical "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" have drawn protest. At Stanford University, the protests -- and ultimately, cancellation -- of the musical came before the cast had even met for their first rehearsal.

And so Stanford students ended up performing a cabaret called “Did We Offend You?" instead of the Andrew Jackson show. "Did We Offend You?" included controversial songs from several musicals including “Rent,” “The Producers,” and the now-canceled “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson."

“The director had a really clear take on the show and how it would bring history to light in a new way,” said Sammi Cannold, artistic director of At the Fountain Theatricals, the student group that funded the musical. “But members of the Native American community on campus voiced their concerns about some of the issues in the show, and various conversations between ourselves and the community ensued. We determined that the production would isolate certain members of campus and we didn’t want to do that.”

“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” recasts America’s seventh president as an angsty indie-rock star singing his way through the Battle of New Orleans, the formation of the Democratic Party, and the violent forcing of Native Americans to move West. The musical satirizes and criticizes Jackson’s life and legacy -- including the Indian Removal Act, which led to the deaths of thousands of Native Americans -- and the dangers of unrestrained populism. “The concerns from the community were about both the show’s satirical commentary on the issue of Native American genocide and the historical inaccuracies that could be inferred from the story,” Cannold said.

It’s not the first time a production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” has drawn controversy. Native Americans criticized the musical during its initial off-Broadway run in 2010, and again when it was performed in Minneapolis this past summer. Rhiana Yazzie, a playwright who helped organize a protest of the Minneapolis production, said the musical “reinforces stereotypes" and left her feeling "assaulted."

“The truth is that Andrew Jackson was not a rockstar 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,” Yazzie wrote in an open letter. “Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was portrayed as a justified, sexy rockstar?"

Jeffrey Matthews, a performing arts professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the musical doesn’t glorify Jackson or justify his actions. In an interview Friday, Matthews also made a Hitler comparison.

“By the end of the musical, you’re meant to ask yourself, ‘Was Jackson actually the American Hitler?’ ” he said. “The message is very much about Jackson claiming much of the country as he could and the horrible things he did. It does require a certain sense of humor to get what the playwrights were after, but it’s meant to show a turning point in our country and is not an excuse for Andrew Jackson at all.”

Generally, Matthews's view is the same one critics had of the New York City production: that it portrayed Jackson as a brutal, ignorant oppressor of Native Americans and white America as loving him for his actions. In the musical's production notes, the writers urge anyone performing the musical to avoid stereotypical and offensive portrayals of Native Americans. 

At Washington University, Matthews is currently also directing a production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."

He said his version of the musical attempts to make the critique of Jackson clear, juxtaposing scenes of the brutal “trail of tears” with Jackson giving a speech at Harvard University that was meant to establish his legacy. The musical has not been protested at Washington, though Matthews did hear from a Native American student who had concerns about the production after reading about the Stanford performance. “He just wanted to know if we were being respectful of the Native Americans in the piece,” Matthews said. “I responded that in, my opinion, we were."

For the Stanford American Indian Organization, the concerns went deeper than just whether the Native Americans were portrayed as stereotypes in the musical or if Jackson was portrayed as a hero, said Ashley Harris, the group's co-chair.

"We were very concerned with how the play represented Native Americans, and less focused on its portrayal of Jackson," Harris said. "While we realize that satire and art can definitely raise productive questions around Jackson’s legacy, we had a lot of reservations about the satirization of genocide, suicide, and alcoholism, which are topics that still have a very real legacy in many of our communities."

At the Fountain Theatricals and the “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” team proposed several ways of ensuring that the musical’s intent was clear and improving representation, including funding a separate musical from a Native American perspective, but an agreement could not be reached. No script changes could change the fact that Native Americans were not part of crafting the musical's portrayal of Native American issues. In the end, the musical was canceled, though Cannold said the production team is not angry about the decision and that the conversations between the two groups remained respectful.

“We canceled it because we didn’t want to hurt anyone or inspire protests that would have a negative effect on the actors attached to the production,” she said. “I think we were dismayed that another outcome wasn’t possible because that might have led to a more concrete understanding of the issues. It could have been a conversation about Andrew Jackson’s legacy and the terrible things he did. He’s portrayed as a buffoon. But it did give us this other opportunity to explore censorship and controversial art instead.”

“Did We Offend You?” premiered last weekend to a sold-out audience.

Peter Bonilla, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he was happy to see the students “taking lemons and making lemonade” by creating a cabaret about controversy, but said the cancellation fits a larger trend of students using protest to silence uncomfortable perspectives rather than using protest to make an argument. Those protests are usually about controversial commencement and guest speakers, however, not student productions.

“It’s not all that often that we see works of student-run theater draw this kind of protest,” Bonilla said. “This musical critiques American culture and exceptionalism, and there was an important debate to be had. It’s a conversation that students should be greeting head-on, rather than deciding this musical is just not fit for consumption at Stanford. Because if it’s not fit for consumption at a university like Stanford, then it’s not fit for consumption anywhere.”

But Harris said the conversations that led to the musical's cancelation and the cabaret's creation were also valuable to the campus.

"We believe that the collaboration in this experience demonstrates the great maturity and respect that is often present on our campus, but lacking in the real world," she said. "The producers went out of their way to hear what we were saying, and when they understood our concerns, they made the personal sacrifice to cancel the play, and they found a really unique way to still raise questions on campus about the intersections of art, community, and mutual respect." 


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