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Cancelled Musical a Missed Opportunity for Dialogue at Stanford

Last week, the Stanford University student theater organization At The Fountain Theatricals (ATF) performed a well-received cabaret of various selections of edgy and provocative musical theater selections. The program was titled “Did We Offend You?” and was aimed at celebrating theater’s role in thrusting difficult and controversial issues into the open. Having worked in theatre before coming to FIRE for a company whose mission revolved around producing works posing challenging political and social questions, I see this as something to be unreservedly celebrated.

Unfortunately, ATF was playing from a compromised position, having cancelled production of its originally-planned musical, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” As The Stanford Daily documented, ATF cancelled “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” in part due to concerns raised about the musical’s content by another Stanford student group, the Stanford American Indian Organization (SAIO), which criticized the musical’s depiction of Native Americans:

However, while [SAIO’s Dahlton Brown and Ashley Harris] both said that they believe [ATF director Benina] Stern and her producers had good intentions, the misrepresentation of Native Americans and satire of serious issues, which included genocide, would negatively affect the Native American community on campus.

“[‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’] more or less uses Native Americans as a prop to tell the story of Andrew Jackson and his controversial presidency,” Brown said. “It uses Native people as a foil, or a backdrop to tell his story, which we felt took away from the legitimacy and historical narrative that is very real and exists for a lot of Native students on this campus.”

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” I’ll note, makes no claims whatsoever to historical accuracy—a fact immediately clear from the first notes of its anthemic rock score and its hipster-meets-Wild-West cast. But also to be noted is the fact that SAIO isn’t pulling its criticisms of the musical from thin air. The Public Theater—the major New York City company that premiered the musical, which would later transfer to Broadway—faced the same criticisms (at a much higher octane) from the Native American community, and productions in Minneapolis, among other locales, have seen protests as well. It’s probably fair to say, at this point, that the controversy over the musical’s depiction of Native Americans is woven into the fabric of the musical itself, an issue to be reckoned with wherever it is produced.

This is not to say that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” should not have been performed at Stanford, and it is definitely not to give credit to the contention that performing the musical would, as one ATF member says she was told by SAIO, “emotionally isolate members of the Native American community on campus.” That isn’t much different from arguing the musical would create a “hostile environment” for Native Americans on campus, which is no more true than the argument that producing “The Book of Mormon” at Stanford would create a hostile environment for Mormon students or that producing “The Producers” (with its legendary “Springtime for Hitler” number) would create a hostile environment for Jewish students.

I could argue, as others have, that the last thing “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is is a sympathetic treatment of Andrew Jackson or his treatment of Native Americans. As I told Inside Higher Ed’s Jake New, the musical is a critique of “American culture and exceptionalism” and its potentially destructive ends. Washington University professor Jeffrey Matthews, who is also staging a production of the musical, makes a similar argument. He says:

“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.”

Of course, what Professor Matthews and I have to say about “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and its themes is completely beside the point. The point is that there is bound to be disagreement on this issue, and there should be no place better equipped for these debates than universities like Stanford. As I told Inside Higher Ed:

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.

Fortunately, ATF was able to turn the experience into something of a positive with its “Did We Offend You?” cabaret, which included songs from “Avenue Q,” “The Book of Mormon,” “The Producers,” “American Idiot,” and even a song from “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” And throughout ATF’s and SAIO’s discussions, the groups remained cordial and respectful, which frequently is not the case in campus controversies such as this one.

Still, it’s hard not to see this as an opportunity missed and another cautionary tale illustrating the dangers of indulging the nonexistent right “not to be offended” and declaring certain topics beyond the coping mechanisms of Stanford students. Given theater’s potency as a gateway to dialogue and enlightenment on the difficult and complex challenges we face, this is a tragedy.

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