Birth of an Emocracy

04/06/2010 9:00 PM |

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a wonder: an emo rock history lesson that is very smart and very funny and slyly, if unintentionally, illuminative of the current resurgence of rabble-rousing populism sweeping the far right.

In an exuberant rock star performance, Ben Walker stars as President Andrew Jackson, a man who to this day fits uncomfortably in our history as a defender of individual liberties (for white men, at least) and the founder of the Democratic Party on one hand, and, as the play notes, a sort of "American Hitler" with genocidal policies towards Native Americans on the other. It's a legacy that hasn't been approached much in theater, with more attention paid to Lincoln-esque heroes or modern-day villains like Nixon or Bush. What makes Jackson so compelling is that he is both Lincoln and Nixon: a man in whom brilliance and idealism clashed with corruption and malevolence.

BBAJ approaches him with a certain amount of ironic skepticism, which is the right choice for this story. It would be near impossible to tell the narrative straight and capture the complexity and contradictions inherent in the man. The great inspiration of Alex Timbers, who wrote and directed, was to view Jackson through a modern prism and see a troubled, whiny emo kid.

This is not a gimmick, and Michael Friedman's full-tilt score manages to find a balance between the thematic justifications for using the genre and satire. When Jackson sings "Life sucks!/And my life sucks in particular!" he doesn't just parody the premise of most emo songs, he embodies it.

To see why the emo theme is so effective, consider that every election has candidates who only think they can win through an outsized view of themselves and a conviction of how devastating (or not) the opposition is. That describes Jackson all right, and the narcissistic everyone-against-me mentality certainly fits the emo stereotype. After watching BBAJ, it's almost impossible to view Jackson in any other way (without the historical references, the book would be indistinguishable from typical emo albums).

The play slips a little when it removes its detachment and has Jackson confront his marred reputation while standing in front of a tableau of devastated native tribes. An earlier sequence about the Indian Removal Act, based on the "10 Little Indians" nursery rhyme, is far more effective for its dispassion.

With any historical piece, it bears mentioning that many liberties were taken with the facts, though Timbers does a better job of illuminating such events as the Corrupt Bargain of 1824 than my high school history class ever did. As with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the more familiar you are with the source material, the funnier you'll find it. Martin Van Buren's surreally over-the-top fopishness is a particular highlight.

Andrew Jackson was one of the first presidents who could claim to be the voice of the people rather than the establishment. Driven into office in a frenzy ("Populism, yeah, yeah!"), he essentially gave the country what it wanted, for good and unforgivably bad. The most revealing moment of this dazzling show is when he breaks from his narcissism to realize that giving the people what they want doesn't mean that good was necessarily done, despite his attempts to argue otherwise. As the narrator of the play tells him, too late for him to understand, "you can't shoot history in the neck."

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

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