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.
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.”
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.