The genre of musical theater is often known to be kitschy or happy-go-lucky, enticing audience members with upbeat music and comedic situations. At first glance, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” seems to be an archetype of this genre. Deduced to its most basic form, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” written by Alex Timbers, is a satirical rock musical about the founding of the Democratic Party in the United States of America. But, in reality, the show possesses much darker themes and is really a portrayal of one of the darkest—and most under-looked—blights in America’s history.
The show comments upon America’s treatment of Native Americans by retelling a critical history of Andrew Jackson. “It pretty much explores how he was the first political celebrity and how it parallels the modern political landscape of how these politicians we have now are basically celebrities,” said Arden Shwayder ’16, the show’s director. “The writers of the show thought Andrew Jackson would be a good figure to study because his legacy is so incredibly infamous and complicated and nuanced because he was the first people’s president—he says it many times throughout the show—but it also explores how this was an impossible thing to be.”
Upon proposing “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” to Future Waitstaff of America (FWA), Shwayder entered into a larger dialogue regarding a dark section of America’s history. Along with Shwayder, the cast and crew all participate in the dialogue surrounding the play’s subject. “One of the biggest issues we are studying and having conversations about as a cast is treatment and forced relocation of Native Americans, which was America’s first real genocide, and how Jackson, as a figure, was trying to be the people’s president, yet his definition of people was white Americans,” said Shwayder.
All who are involved in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” feel implicated to bring to light a part of American history that has yet to receive the correct amount of attention. “It’s about America, our values, our propensity to forget and push things to the side and to not deal with really difficult issues,” said Aidan Kahn ’14, who will be starring as Andrew Jackson in the show. “In this issue in particular, it’s the fact of the decimation and ethnic cleansing of First Nations Peoples. It’s not just something that we can push aside or gasp at as having been a bad thing that our forefathers did. Rather, we are all still implicated today to a great extent.”
The play will be performed outdoors in the Center for Drama and Film Quad, which will prevent audiences from fully losing themselves into the world of the play. “People will look around and think to themselves, ‘Look at that man-made lake over there. Look at all of these things. I probably benefit from Jackson’s stuff all the time,’” Shwayder said. “It will force the audience to think even more of the story at hand and how they personally benefit or benefit from it. It’s not just this separate thing that happened in history—it’s still happening today.”
The play further brings audience members into the conversation by being entirely self-aware. “The format of the play is kind of like the nightmare of an AP US History teacher who puts on a play and it becomes too real in some pretty fucking scary plays,” said Kahn. “It becomes horribly violent and horribly vulgar. My character says some horrible shit. So it’s important that we break the forth wall.”
One of the methods Shwayder employs to keep the audience in constant awareness is by keeping the band involved with the play’s action at the forefront instead of hidden away in the pit. “When you make the audiences aware of themselves, they can’t be zoning out and staring into space and thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner,” Shwayder said, “They have to think about the space they are sitting in and actually be a part of the story—especially in this story, in which they are all implicated in what has happened. It’s great to make the audience active participants instead of passive viewers.”
What is crucial for a satirical play that can be very offensive is that its audience constantly reflects over the action on stage and maintains a critical eye. “Vassar is unique in its ability to be very scrutinizing. We have a different way of evaluating things and I think it’s important, especially with this kind of musical, that we remain critical and are always analyzing,” said Matt Mendoza ’15, the band’s guitarist and vocalist.
Ultimately, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is an agent that will bring America’s darker past to light. “The reason we do not talk about these issues is because the system succeeded in marginalizing native voices,” Kahn said. “This play is highly politically-incorrect, which is necessary. That kind of satirical acerbic comedy is necessary to get at these issues, principally the issue of, which is actually a line in one of the songs, ‘do you really want the American people running their own country?’ It’s this conflict between tyranny of the majority, populist ideals, democracy and protecting the Constitutionally-stated values of this country, which have often been in conflict in troubling ways.”
Shwayder hopes that “Bloody Bloody” will open up dialogue on campus about an events that happen in its audience’s backyard: “Theater and satire, which this show largely is, is a way to draw the audience in with fun lights, music and dancing and then you trap them in this intense conversation that they probably hadn’t thought about, that will open up a dialogue. I hope the audience does reach out to me and the actors afterwards to continue talking about the play, the way it’s written and the subject matter.”