Elad Ben Elul

Anthropology, Digital Life & Food

The Book of Mormon- a secular/liberal parody or a racist religious propaganda?

Book of Mormon- a secular/liberal parody or a racist religious propaganda?

The Book of Mormon- humour aside, the joke was on who? Not Lion King’s Africa, but something much more horrible

I was invited to see the highly-acclaimed and extremely popular Broadway musical that swept West End by storm, “Book of Mormon”, and had an experience I will probably never forget. I never wrote a review in this blog, but my blood is still rushing with shock and slight despair and I feel like I must contribute my voice to the discussion around the musical. The tragedy is I might be categorised as the righteous and uptight one who doesn’t appreciate humour, but I love humour, especially in its shocking and dark form. The question is who is being mocked and by who.

A quick synopsis: “The Book of Mormon” tells the story of two Mormons, one (Elder Price) is a a bright, clever, highly motivated and handsome young man and the other (Elder Cunningham) is a fat, ugly and stupid geek who also happens to be a pathological liar. The freshly trained Mormons are sent on a missionary operation to Uganda, Africa. Price and Cunningham find themselves in a poor, dirty and primitive village, which they are meant to “save” by introducing Mormonism to. The mission proves to be harder than they had thought, which leads Elder Price to give up and runaway. Left on his own, Elder Cunningham (who never even read the Book of Mormon as “it is so boring”), turns to lies and makes up facts to gain the attention of the locals, and by convincing them that the religion has relevance to each and every one of them (for example, the founding father also had aids but cured himself by fucking a frog, instead of a baby), they quickly agree to convert. When the proud leaders of the church arrive to witness the baptism of the villagers, they discover that the Africans’ new faith is based on a bunch of lies and crazy ideas. The villagers (with their “simple” wisdom), however, do understand that the “stories” Elder Cunningham told them are mere metaphors. At that same point our hero, Elder Price, has a revelation – he understands the true meaning of religion- it doesn’t matter if it’s crazy and made up, because these are metaphoric symbols that provide hope, values and joy to its believers. Price and Cunningham decide to stay in Africa and spread their new made up religion, “The Book of Arnold” (Cunningham’s first name), with the help of the Ugandan villagers.

We understand at the end, that the entire show was an allegory to the birth of Mormonism, which had to release itself from the limiting cables of old religious establishment (Judaism and Christianity) and move ahead with time, bringing a young and cheerful religion that actually relates to everyone.

Now, anyone with a slight post-colonial awareness can spot the extremely problematic narrative and themes brought in this story immediately- an extremely stereotypical and old fashioned portrayal of contemporary Africa and Africaness, which is a primitive and deprived place lacking any spirituality or wisdom, simply waiting to be saved by the white man and his book of progress. But the problem is double- 1. Not many people have a post-colonial awareness 2. With the mask of good humour and satire, the spectator is encouraged to believe that these are only jokes and that the show is actually dedicated to mock Mormons and not Africans. Let’s de construct these claims.

I’ll start with a very undergraduate essay opening style and turn to the Oxford dictionary’s definition of ‘satire’: “The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues“. The element of humour and satire is crucial in The Book of Mormon for it relaxes the tensed muscles of the average theatregoer: a secular (or Atheist) educated and liberal individual from the upper middle class or upper class, with a flair  for irony and wittiness. As the writers of South Park are behind the creation, the cynical audience (who’d never be interested in Mormons organically), sits down believing they’ll get a good laugh about how “Jesus is magic!”*. However, who’s stupidity is really exposed in supposed satire in The Book of Mormon?

When Price and Cunningham discover they are being sent to Africa, a black actress dressed in traditional costumes start singing a mystical and exotic African song, and the audience is led to think Africa will be portrayed “like in The Lion king”, but this is quickly broken when it is realised the black singer is an African American extra from the Musical “The Lion King” and never even visited Africa. In this scene the writers tell us- we’re not going to show you the stereotypical Lion King Africa, but the “real” one. As one of the show’s stars claimed in an interview for The Guardian, “I think the show is partly a comment on American blindness about what Africa is actually like. They think it’s like The Lion King”. And what Africa “actually is” according to the show? A village struck with poverty and dirt, where EVERYONE has aids, where technology or medicine were not yet introduced and where rape, illiteracy, killing, female circumcision and despair are random and even funny everyday things (I am even shocked while writing this!). The only “native” language words in the show mean “fuck you god” and are presented as the village’s motto to portray their low morals and lack of faith- of course all is decorated with jokes and catchy music with the constant reminding- this is South Park, it’s a liberal satire – not racism.

Not once were the stereotypes and clichés broken, questioned or challenged (except those about Mormonism) and not once did we get a glimpse to the wisdom and wealth of indigenous African tribes, the growing technological innovation and advancement in Uganda and the basic pride and knowledge of what it means to be African, that not one of the characters seem to have. Instead, ignorance and lies were immortalised as the villagers in the play (apart from raping babies to cure aids) are under constant threat of the leadership (General Butt-Fucking-Naked, who also happens to be a cruel murderer and a homosexual), to perform female circumcision on all the women in the village. Just a few facts about Uganda you will never hear about in the musical:

1. Christianity was first introduced in Uganda in 1877 and today 85% of the country is Christian! Instead what we see is not only non-Christians, but non believers whatsoever, as if before Christianity Africans lacked any dimension of spiritual belief.

2. About 12 percent of Ugandans are Muslims and most female circumcision is performed amongst that community (and not as part of Africa’s local “pagan” religions as described in the play). Moreover, the Ugandan government (amongst many other African countries) outlawed this practice and been working on eliminating it for many years. Many voices within Islam as well fight to protect the young girls who are being circumcised and the issue is hardly appropriate as a joke.

3. Ugandan cities have rapidly grown with the British colonial project and the country is now rich with busy metropolises with skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and shopping districts and a growing technological advancement and innovation with international impacts.  There is a very strong decline of rural village life as more and more people move to the social hub of the city to get academic education and professional training.

Kampala City, Uganda - if you really wanted to break the "Lion King" American stereotype, this would have been a better choice.

Kampala City, Uganda – if you really wanted to break the “Lion King” American stereotype, this would have been a better choice.

4. Mobile phones are integral and essential in many African countries- with the lack of access to wireless internet in many areas, mobile phones are used in many creative ways to allow intercity communication. According to this article, farmers in Uganda use mobile phones to order supplies, monitor crops, collect data and insure their fields. The growth of the mobile phone market in Africa is actually three times higher than anywhere in the world! Of course, in the liberal and witty satire of the Broadway show, what we see is a young tribal woman walking around holding an old typing machine thinking she is “texting” people as a joke about how Africans were not yet informed about the wonder of mobile phones.

5. Sexuality in the play- there is a repeating analogy between baptising and sexual intercourse in the play that echoes sensitive issues around male gender oppression and colonialism. Cunningham is sexually attracted to the village girl and wants to “baptise her”. However, he is not in love with her as he doesn’t even remember her name and chooses racist alternatives like “Nutella” and “Nicotine Patch” (the audience also doesn’t know her name because someone thought it’s not important enough). She, on her side, doesn’t love him either, as she only wants him to save her village. In a horrific baptising scene, the black woman pleas for the White man to “baptise her”, and comes out after the deed with a wet dress as the audience bursts out laughing. Parody or not, the concept is clear: the woman is an empty vessel with unfulfilled fertility that awaits for a man to turn her into something good. The black woman is objectified and exotified as a fetishistic subject to be conquered. The “barbaric” sexuality of the natives was also seen as they were dancing with giant black dildos, performing a public orgy in front of the church’s elders (who were all very civilised and clean…). This discourse was common during Colonialism when the lands of Africa, Australia and America were seen as fertile yet empty land, awaiting their arrival and are only completed once the settlers seed their sperm in them. Moreover, when history of rape, slavery and colonialism are still so recent and understudied, and as the two do not even end up being together, the scene was a disgrace to theatre and took us many steps back to very dark days.

One might say, but what about the Mormons? they are also being laughed at in the show and are the main joke- their religion is reduced to a bunch of lies and bullshit and they are portrayed as conservative and ignorant. But are they really? What I saw is that the heroes of the show were Mormons and we as an audience experience and identify with the narrative from their point of view. We see friendly, joyful and loyal people who are white, clean and moral and who dedicate their lives to spreading good. Moreover, the actual allegory to Mormonism is Arnold’s made-up religion which is taken on by the locals and helps them save their village, find faith and hope and restore their lives.

The Mormons (who conveniently bought adverts in every second page of the show’s program) thought of the perfect stunt- with humour and irony, we will explain to the liberal atheist that we are not really crazy and think all those stories we tell actually happened, but we see them as spiritual metaphors that lead to a better life. The newest and fastest growing religion of this decade, gained exposure and public relations to crowds they never managed to reach. They got to tell their story and tell it well. Apart from giving out flyers outside the shows, It has been reported that many people converted to Mormonism following the show!

So to recap- those who are weak, poor and under-represented remain exactly as they were seen before going to the play, while those who preach Mormonism win the jackpot and are seen as ‘the cool new religion” that isn’t afraid of modernity, humour and irony. Mormons always took pride in their ability to modify laws and rewrite scriptures as modernity dictates, as they did in 1978 when they started removing the incredibly racist laws against mixed-marriage, the ban on blacks and the belief that blackness is a curse by god, which legitimises slavery. As written in The New York Review of Books (the only review I found that seriously raised the option of the show being racist!):

“The satire is there, the smut and all the glee, but by the end of the evening—strangely enough—no offence has been given and no damage has been done…(to the Mormons, E.B.E). The mission has been a fiasco, but the Ugandans save the day by pointing out that religious discourse is metaphorical anyway. This gets everybody somehow off the hook, and the show concludes on a triumphant note…

“To get through the ordeal they (The Mormon Community, E.B.E) must keep their good humor, and it is worth doing so because, at the end of the hazing, their reward will be a greater acceptance in society. Some hand is going to clap them on the shoulder and say: Well done, you managed to survive. And the audience is going to feel better about Mormons than they did before, and better about themselves for all that better feeling.”

Wicked- challanges our conceptions of "good" and "bad". The underdog is who we identify with and who brings wisdom. The popular girl is the joke- that's satire. When this logic is reversed your just left with propaganda.

Wicked- challenges our conceptions of “good” and “bad”. The underdog is who we identify with and who brings wisdom. The popular girl is the joke- that’s satire. When this logic is reversed you’re just left with propaganda.

The question many ask is how come no one said that this is racist so far? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps when tickets start at £70 with an average of £140 per ticket, those who would have made a cry are not even aware of the crime, which further reinforces the exclusion and power relations around high art forms such as musical theatre. As for the black actors who agreed to play in the show, I can only assume they’re convinced like everyone else that this is “just humour”. Moreover, it is hard to turn down a role when getting access to the script only after being accepted and when you’re a black musical-theatre artist, surviving in a world that sees you as a token and takes you off the shelf only when there’s a need for an exotic and Orientalist portrayal of blackness, or someone is simply casting a maid**.

For me the role of smart satire is to challenge perceptions – had we discovered through humour that Elder Cunningham, the ugly and fat Mormon, was actually the smart and inspirational figure and not shiny-teeth Elder Price, had we discovered that Africa is a place not less clever or developed than any other, or had we discovered that the gay members of the church decide to accept themselves and that “turning off the light bulb” doesn’t really help, I would have agreed that this is a satire. What we got instead is the confirmation and reinforcement of all those conceptions which not only brought me to tears but shocked me to the very core that practically no one raised their voice about this before. I also can’t stop but wondering: if the Mormons truly turned away from their racist past, if the show is really not racist and if the narrative describes Africa’s socio-political climate and not Africans as a race, how come – out of the 15 white Mormon boys – not one African American Mormon was present?…

*To those blinded by the slogan “from the creators of South Park” thinking it can’t be that this is not a conservative play, it is worth knowing about “South Park Republican“- a concept developed by many bloggers who revealed that the show is actually the voice of centre-right republicans who use modernity and liberalism as part of their package. Apart from being an active member of the Libertarian Party, South Park co-creater Trey Parker once stated “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.”

**In the West End production of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (adapted from the French film by Jacques Demy), the role of Madeleine, the woman who takes care of the hero’s dying aunt, and who is secretly in love with him and ends up marrying him, is replaced by a black token actress who is dressed with a French maid’s clothes (unlike in the film) and is stripped down of her emotions towards the hero.

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21 comments on “The Book of Mormon- a secular/liberal parody or a racist religious propaganda?

  1. Tom Cottey
    July 11, 2013

    Great review! I’m thoroughly shocked that this play can be awarded with such critical acclaim for its humour when it is so ignorant, racist and from the sounds of things profane. The Guardian wrote a review saying that they didn’t like it and didn’t understand the humour, they also mentioned it was racist but didn’t go into detail why. However, after reading a few articles, critics insist that the content is meant to shock but the whole play tied together is not offensive and even Oprah liked it…I think i’ll have to watch the play for myself, although i’m not sure i’ll like it. Watching South Park for all those years may offer a different perspective, I remember episodes like starvin marvin that appear racist but isn’t (actually maybe a little) but is still one of my favorite episodes! I hope I acquire a different perspective on the play. Kathy x

    • eladu86
      July 11, 2013

      Thank you so much Kathy! It is a very tricky issue exactly because it is funny but even if it’s full of jokes both South Park episodes and the play have a core story and the story carries messages and values independent from the humour which needs to be examined. I think the rule of three applies here: 1. A negative representation of an oppressed group is made 2. It is not counter-argued by any additional elements of the story 3. The oppressed group did not take part in the writing or creating of the story but is instead represented by someone else.

      About Oprah- I love her but she’s hardly a stamp of approval in issues of black power for me (more a stamp of approval of popular culture…) and seems to like everything these days… it’s easy to say- “it can’t be racist- Oprah liked it and we have a black president!”, but we should remember there are blacks who support the BNP as well….after all they are a product of the same society that initiated those ideas and are not isolated from it. x

  2. Tori
    February 7, 2014

    Thank you! I just saw the show last night and you have written my exact thoughts. This is one of the only blogs talking about this for some reason so I just had to comment.

    The show didn’t sit with me very well. As a black woman, sitting amongst a bunch of white faces that oaid hundreds for their tickets laughing at the poor, tragic, silly Africans with AIDS, the whole thing just gave me a queasy feeling. My sister tried to ease my mind about it, reminding me what it deep satire it was, but it just didn’t work on a satirical level for me. Not when it came to the racial elements. It just seems more like poking fun, but in a really stereotypical, lazy way. It seemed like rich white people making show making fun of Africans…for other rich white people. Even if Trey Parker and Matt Stone thought audiences would get their satire, I really don’t think they did which means we’re just left with the racism.

    One of the worst parts about it is people warned me that I might be offended before I went. I didn’t know what they meant as I didn’t know what the show was about besides Mormons. Now I realize they were saying I would be offended because I’m black. But the thing is, why do I just have to be black to be offended? Couldn’t we all just be collectively offended?

    I left the theater feeling pretty low about that whole thing.

    • eladu86
      February 9, 2014

      Hi Tori,
      I am really glad that you found my little blog post because as you said there is nothing out there about the racist elements in the play. Moreover, as you mentioned, all the publicity and marketing of the play do no mention or show that it has anything to do with Africans.
      What you said about people “warning” you from the play is precise and shows a kind of hypocrisy about the White liberal admiration of the play. It is also a shame that standing against it is immediately understood as having no sense of humour.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here 🙂

    • Yossi Brauman
      February 17, 2014

      Tori, you are absolutely right! Thanks for sharing your feelings. We saw the show in London and there wasn’t even one black person in the crowd. All white and wealthy. Also, there was a family of Americans sitting next to me, and at first their PC minds didn’t accept it, but after a few minutes, they saw that all the Brits were so hysterically laughing, so they let themselves go. Like one of my best friends always says, “Squeeze a white person hard enough and often racism will come out”.

    • Litatdc
      November 7, 2014

      Hi Tori I am not black myself, neither is the girlfriend who saw the show with me yesterday night. I wish someone had given us a warning, we couldn’t believe our eyes as soon as the ‘African village’ set showed up and it was just downhill from there. We were just happy we had bought the cheapest tickets. The first thing I did when I got home was google BOM racist show. I am glad I found this article and appalled that none of the media coverage had even suggested offensive content. I’m also sorry that nowadays black artists still face so many barriers in the performance arts business that they have to waste their talents playing minstrel. I left the theatre depressed, mad and disappointed.

  3. Tedi Bell
    May 3, 2014

    I just saw the show this afternoon. I am white, and I was appalled by the racism and classism portrayed. Once again, we are subjected to the same old story. The (ignorant) holy white man who steps in to save the “poor, uncivilized” native peoples. I guess I sat through the whole thing hoping against hope for some kind of redemption. Twaddle. It never happened. I’ll spread the word.

    • Rahla
      September 4, 2014

      ThanK U!!! I live in Africa & considered this show grossly offensive. Wen u live with people who’ve escaped civil war there’s nothing funny about it. Wondering if people would be white so amused if next time they set a musical on remains of ground zero instead of war torn Africa…?…

      • eladu86
        September 4, 2014

        Thank you! That’s a very good point …

  4. Kushite Prince
    June 7, 2014

    Great review! This proves that racist stereotypes are pretty much everywhere. I see it on sitcoms,films and plays. You get two thumbs up for this review! I’ll keep my money. I won’t be seeing this garbage of a play.

  5. Judith Robinson
    December 17, 2014

    I have just found this – saw the show in Chicago a couple of years ago, and was talking to a colleague about how completely gob-smacked I was by how completely offensive and tasteless The Book of Mormon was (I have never seen South Park, but am not a prude & find risque humour often a blast). It was precisely those aspersions about Africa and Africans, a named country – Uganda – no less, that I found despicable. What amazed me was that the entire audience seemed enraptured, including the African-American lady sitting next to me, who told me she had seen the Broadway show & simply had to see it again … I’m a Brit, who was raised in colonial Uganda & Kenya, my son’s fiancee is from Ghana – imagine if I’d taken them to see this during her visit here in the States. Well, it would doubtless have generated some animated discussion, but I would have been embarrassed for her to see this! Thank you for pointing out so cogently & articulately all that I felt about this show; I had not caught the subtleties about how it’s really an advocate for Mormons and their proselytizing canniness, though – thank you for these insights.

  6. pinball183
    May 9, 2015

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have been working the show (I work at a Broadway show theater in San Francisco), and I have these thoughts running through my mind every time I have to watch it. This show is no different than the minstrelsy shows (black face) that were very popular in the United States post bellum when “black” and “whites” were segregated by law. I couldn’t have said it better. Thank you

    • eladu86
      May 13, 2015

      Thank you! As someone who works in the production why do you think no one raises these issues? how come only a tiny blog discusses these problems even though they are so obvious? Could it be the lack of access among those who might take offence?

  7. Sam Surl
    July 29, 2015

    Every single comment here seems to entirely miss the point. The whole show is a satire and our collective (audience) attitudes to Africa are equally being satirised. I’m damn sure that the writers of the show know that mobile phones are used widely throughout Africa, and I’m equally sure that they chose Uganda to place the show precisely because in many respects it is the absolute antithesis of lazy western ideas of what constitutes the ‘African’ experience. Thus one of the threads of the show is precisely that we ( as an audience) are actually often complicit in the stereotyping and the misrepresentation of Africa, perceiving it as a completely dysfunctional and homogeneous continent. I would argue that we as much being asked to look to ourselves as to laugh at naive Mormonism.

    In the words of Homer: ‘Doh’.

  8. Rosa Maria Pegueros
    November 20, 2015

    I am a Latina, a professor of Latin American history, a Jew, a fat woman and a lesbian. I don’t know exactly what to expect but my wife wanted to see it, so we went. I found myself getting queasy when the focus of “fun” was the little fat guy. When they announced the destinations of the missions, and the reaction to Uganda was met with such disappointment, I really started to get uncomfortable. But when they arrived in Uganda, and the full racist bent of the show revealed itself, I felt like I was choking. Having heard it was satire, I decided not to leave but to see the second half in the hopes that it would redeem itself. As you know, it did not. Is this what passes for satire these days? Making fun of a poor village of Africans who are infected with HIV and despair, and duping them into believing in a paradise. was supposed to be funny ? And a satire on the Mormon church as well? What a waste of an evening; what a waste of money. But worst of all, I sat in an audience of my neighbors, who laughed uproariously while I squirmed with discomfort. I am bummed.

    • eladu86
      November 25, 2015

      Hi Rosa, thank you for sharing your thoughts! Everytime someone finds my little blog just because of this post it just shows me how unspoken this topic is… as you said the target audience loves it and the people who’d be offended don’t watch it so the crime goes unnoticed…

  9. Sally
    June 18, 2016

    Wow I just found this and I completely agree! I’m surprised how much love this musical has gotten by the Broadway community which is supposedly so liberal and the little criticism it has gotten for it’s portrayal of Africans. As an African it’s uncomfortable that the mostly white audiences watching this will be laughing at the expense of african people. It almost comes across as a minstrel show. I can appreciate comedy and if they had done something to challenge the perception of the Africans that would be different but they didn’t. It’s sad that the black actors have to take roles like this.

    • eladu86
      June 26, 2016

      Thank you for your response Sally! I am always happy to hear how others felt when watching this. I am also constantly amazed at how my little blog managed to be one of the only serious critiques about the play.

  10. Jennifer Montiamo
    March 10, 2017

    Thank you for putting words to my thoughts, I saw the musical yesterday in Sweden and I agree with you on every word. I have such a bad taste in my mouth.

    • eladu86
      March 15, 2017

      Hey! Thank you for commenting. I didn’t know it shows in Sweden. Years passed since this post and I still get comments on it every now and then which shows not many others spoke up.

  11. Carol Scovil
    March 23, 2017

    I just saw the musical in Toronto, and like so many, was surprised and offended by the depiction of Ugandans (generalized as Africans for most of the play, because really, there isn’t a difference between places in Africa, right?). As a white Canadian, I was appalled. I went expecting the satire and humour directed towards Mormons, and it mostly succeeded. But I saw no satire and humour in the depiction of the Ugandans. I was amazed that no one had mentioned the racism in it to me beforehand. Perhaps it speaks volumes, that in such a multicultural city as Toronto, the audience was almost entirely white. I wonder how many came out feeling uncomfortable about the depiction of Africans. Thank you for being one of the voices to articulate it so clearly.

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