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'Jackson' musical softened, protestors unappeased

Posted by: Kristin Tillotson under Theater, Behind the scenes, Culture Updated: June 10, 2014 - 4:29 PM

Philip C. Matthews stars as Andrew Jackson in the Minneapolis Musical Theatre production of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Photo by Laurie Etchen.

On Friday night, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," now playing at the New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, was picketed by about two dozen protesters objecting to the portrayal of native Americans in the show. Some of the most galvanizing lines from the Broadway hit about the populist president who also initiated the Indian Removal Act have been excised or softened in this version produced by Minneapolis Musical Theatre and presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust. But protest leader Rhiana Yazzie, a Navajo playwright who wrote a public letter criticizing the show, still finds it problematic.

"The story leaves it up to the individaul to decide whether Jackson was a hero or not," she said. "When the bricks of a play are built on misunderstanding, you can take some out but the structure stays flawed. The changes felt very last-minute, like a response to the letter I sent."

But MMT artistic director Steven Meerdink said script modifications – which are generally frowned upon in theater circles --  were made starting on the first day of rehearsal.

“I felt the show was slanted too much in favor of Andrew Jackson as a hero and I wanted the playing field to be more even,” he said. “The way characters were supposed to be costumed was quite stereotypical in my mind and I didn’t want to go down that path.”

In addition to scratching a flying arrow and traditional feathered headdresses, this version has Jackson’s parents die of cholera, not from an Indian attack (which also did not happen in real life), and cuts out a few culturally disparaging references.

Also, when a group of four women recite the old chant “Ten Little Indians” to underscore the decimation of Indian populations going on at the time, Meerdink said he chose not to dress them like rock chicks wearing sunglasses, as called for in the script. “I didn’t want to go there,” he said. “I felt we needed to take a step back to show this negative thing that happened.”

Yazzie attended Sunday night’s performance and came away feeling that the altered work was still inappropriate to stage at all.

“The play’s success hinges on all of that racism toward native Americans, which audiences in New York were hooting and howling at,” she said. “ When you experiment by taking out as much as you can, it still doesn’t work. It just becomes a big downer.”

Meerdink said he “respectfully disagreed” with Yazzie’s assessment. “This is a controversial piece of theater that’s not going to make everyone happy no matter what you do with it,” he said.

A post-show panel discussion is being planned following the June 19 performance of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."  If you've seen it, what did you think?  Click "comment" above the photo to tell us.

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