The Book of Mormon, the musical, has been playing on Broadway to rave reviews since March 2011. It won 9 Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Traveling productions are popping up in just about every major city; reportedly, it’s a big hit in Salt Lake City.
The concept, music and lyrics are by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, and Robert Lopez, co-creator of Avenue Q. Parker and Stone are known as “equal opportunity offenders,” so I was prepared for risqué jokes, politically incorrect humor, and cringe-worthy satire of Mormons and Protestant missionaries. I was not prepared for the racism.
Much of the satire is admittedly very funny and pointed. “Turn it Off” is a catchy song and dance number about how to deal with uncomfortable thoughts among the missionaries, who work two-by-two in unfamiliar cultures. “Turn it off, like a light switch, just go click! It’s our nifty little Mormon trick…so if you ever feel you’d rather be with a man, Turn it off!”
Another scene is a clever spoof on long-held Mormon beliefs about the inferiority of dark-skinned peoples. As the Mormon missionaries are in Uganda, the unpopular second banana, Elder Cunningham, is forced into the leading role as his partner, the golden boy Elder Price, flakes out.Cunningham has never really studied the Mormon doctrine, part of which tells of a battle between the Lamanites who received the curse of “a skin of blackness” and the Nephites. As he retells the Book of Mormon, he reinvents it along the way, embellishing it with stories that reflect the villagers’ lives and changes the racist depiction of the Lamanites so that the Ugandans will want to convert to Mormonism.
Although much of the cast is African-American, including the wonderful Nikki James, who won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, the audiences at The Book of Mormon are generally almost all white. This seems surprising at first, but may well be because the portrayal of Ugandans relies on simplistic and unfunny stereotypes of Africans.
The people of the village are portrayed as childlike and uneducated. They are terrorized by the General Butt-F*cking Naked, who kills anyone who will not agree to have his female family members circumcised. According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa is most prevalent in Guinea, Djibouti, and Somalia (over 90 percent of females 15-49 years old), as opposed to less than one percent of females in Uganda.
The villagers all have AIDS and believe that they can only be cured by having sex with a virgin; and since there are no more virgins, they must have sex with infants. One character calls out, “I’ve got maggots in my scrotum” every so often. In a key scene, the African villagers present a pageant to the Mormon leaders. As they act out the distorted story of the Book of Mormon told to them by Elder Cunningham, they wear grass skirts and huge phalluses made of gourds.
In another scene, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” Elder Price is in hell and finds there Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnnie Cochran (??!!).
If you have seen The Book of Mormon, what do you think? What did you find funny and what was offensive? In an age when seemingly nothing is sacred, did it cross one line too many for you?
I looked at many reviews in a cursory internet search and found discussions about possible offense to Mormons but no comments about the portrayal of Africans. Is it possible to joke about missionaries in Africa without being racist? What stereotypes are too outdated and inaccurate to be humorous or thought-provoking?
I guess it’s possible to see The Book of Mormon as a hugely popular metaphor for Western imperialism in the underdeveloped world, an imposition of Western “faith” traditions as the entrée to investment and exploitation. Barbara Kingsolver did a bang-up job on missionaries in Africa in her great novel The Poisonwood Bible. Or is that my leftie mentality on overdrive?
But seriously, asking. Any reader comment?
Photo: Wikimedia (CC)