If you haven’t already heard of it, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an emo-rock opera by young theater provocateurs Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers, who’s also the guy responsible for mounting a “Hell House” in bougie-Brooklyn, a Scientology Christmas Pageant, and a version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler that stars robots (entitled, of course, Heddatron). All the shows have been pretty monumental successes, including Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is the Public Theater’s second-highest grossing show, ever. And the big news is that they’re thinking of moving it to Broadway. Problem: People are pissed, and now there’s a scandal.
Capital New York’s D.M. Levine reports not just on members of New York’s theater community taking umbrage with the show’s depiction and perceived insensitivity to Native Americans…
“Seeing the show made me ashamed to be in that theater,” Steve Elm, an Oneida Indian, told Capital. Elm is Artistic Director of Amerinda, a native American-focused arts production company that has partnered with the Public in the past. “The audience was 99 percent European, and they were all laughing uproariously at jokes about Indians,” he said. “And that was very, very uncomfortable for me and made me feel very ashamed that I was sitting in there.”
But also to people inside the Public apparently: Betsy Richards, who was working in-house at the Public on a fellowship sponsored by the Ford Foundation, who also sponsors the Native Theater Initiative, was so pissed off about all of this, she decided to, uh, work from home. It lead to highly-paid Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis holding meetings with Native American groups and writing letters conceding a blunder, which he called in one letter a “stupid mistake on my part,” following with “I apologize.” And now they’re talking re-writes on the show if it does, in fact, move to Broadway.
Here’s the thing: Broadway — which, as Voice theater critic Michael Feingold recently noted — is overlooking New York’s hardworking and high quality theater community in exchange for bright lights, loud sounds, and big-name celebrities. Or as he put it: “The New York theater is living through a time unbelievably rich in gifted artists, whose gifts are not being effectively employed or sufficiently recognized.” And — ask almost anybody who’s seen it — Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is the antidote to that little plague on our arts.
Part of what makes Timbers’ shows so spectacular is that they are unlike so much of what’s out there now: uncompromising, and not willing to kowtow to the sensitivities or political correctness of anyone, without discretion. Since when was art supposed to be sensitive? Especially in theater, especially in New York? Watering these shows down is censorship, pure and simple. Some playwrights have foolishly and stubbornly decided to protest the Public Theater — who can get them work, which if you’re a playwright, isn’t easy to find — and what’s worse is that the Public Theater is bending to their will, setting a terrible, stupid precedent for whatever’s to come. If Mormons had protested the way they were depicted in Angels In America with success, would Tony Kushner’s epic fantasia about the AIDS crisis have the legacy that it does? Not likely. Remember, this is an emo-rock opera, and a farce, and a generally silly show. Sadly, though, if political correctness (and entitlement politics) wins, it’s going to be exponentially sillier, and will — like Andrew Jackson, incidentally — help drive the extinction of a vital freedom to New York’s art culture that helps make it one of the best in the world: The ability to say and do whatever the hell you want.