For my 20th birthday, my Black parents and I decided to see the critically acclaimed 9 time Tony award winning play “The Book of Mormon.” A play supposedly satirizing Mormonism, a religion born out of white American culture in the 1800s. Who better to poke fun at deeply held beliefs than the creators of the broadly offensive Comedy Central show "South Park"? Together with playwright Robert Lopez they ultimately created a sensationalized and insensitive piece of work.
Going into it, raunch and crude humor are expected; if you’re familiar with "South Park," you know just how offensive it can be. Generally on the cartoon, and I emphasize generally, they do it in a sort of intelligent way that does not solely rely on the offense itself as the punch-line. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for “The Book of Mormon.”
This play did not have any redeeming qualities. My parents and I left after the first act because of the unbearable display of blatant racism. If it were to redeem itself, the second act would have to indicate that the entire first act was a racist dream sequence born out of the subconscious of the one of the ignorant main characters who had been sentenced to Uganda for their 2 year religious mission.
A few parts in particular made me gag and lose a bit more faith in the already problematic white liberal ideology. I’ll provide a short list of what really stuck with me for your understanding:
As the young Mormons are being selected for their mission locations they make fun of largely non damaging stereotypes about the places they’re going. France is the land of baguettes (or was it croissants?) and turtlenecks; Japan is reduced to soy sauce and Norway for vikings. Then our heroes are given Uganda and nice resounding “wamp wamp wamp” is played by a few trumpets. And so it begins. The misfit Mormon isn’t even aware what continent the country is on. This one may be making fun of white ignorance, but it gets worse. (At least their mission wasn’t just Africa, right?).
As our heroes are in the airport, a Black woman clad in horribly stereotypical African clothing (featuring a tiger or lion print loincloth, fur shoes, arbitrary red face makeup, and a large feathered headdress) sings in an unidentified language while reenacting the Lion King. This was only partially redeemed when she walks off the stage saying she was hired by their parents to give them a positive send off. She says she hasn't been to the continent and leaves with a sassy “Bye babies” and walks off stage. (The predominantly white crowd roars laughing). My parents and I are wondering just what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
They land in Uganda and are immediately robbed by a corrupt general of all their things. Wherever they are, a bureaucratic form of policing doesn’t exist.
The first song in Uganda, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," is about the Ugandans saying “Fuck You” to God for their woes; it features almost every Black (minstrel) on stage saying they have AIDS.
The song also features a man from a tribe that idealizes having sex with virgins, but because there are no virgins left, he’s resorted to trying to have sex with infants (a resounding “Fuck You, God” ensues).
The ignorant Africans are willing to be saved by the mormons as Act 1 closes, thinking that Salt Lake City is the promised land.
The last song of Act 1 ends with a Ugandan man, the doctor of the village, running up and screaming “I have maggots in my scrotum!”
I promise you, this only touches the surface of offense in the “Book of Mormon,” whose cast features X amount of white boys and then the “Africans.” Ignorantly walking into the play, the amount of Black cast members excited us, but then they were minstrels and the hurt began. I ache for the Black members of that cast who must have had such a hard time getting a gig that they have to resort to this tainted play. Robert Lopez and the South Park creators tapped into white guilt and white America’s insatiable need to make fun of their oppressive tendencies and system in order to erase it. It seemed to say “If we can make fun of it, then it doesn’t exist!”
But in all the places the play could have redeemed itself in that act, it did not. Homegirl, who sent off the white boy mormon missionaries, according to the play, was an accurate representation (if not even a more idealistic one) of the entire continent of Africa. I laughed at her performance genuinely thinking they were going to get to Uganda and it was going to be decently developed. This would’ve confused the white boys because Africa could never have comfortable living conditions and well maintained societies, right? Ignorant. That still could’ve been funny and less harmful, but now I can only imagine the goal was to be racist.
Parody and satire is only tasteful or funny when there is a firm grasp of the reality you’re making fun of. Everyone in that room would have needed to visit Uganda four times before that portrayal did no harm. This desire to poke fun at things you’re already ignorant of is a harmful and damaging tendency. Sure we know that not everyone in Uganda has AIDS, but to reinforce this stereotype to a primarily middle to upper class white audience who will never step a foot in any of Africa and bask in their privilege every day does nothing but allow them to make light of their racism.
It’s nothing to laugh about when I constantly feel the weight of my race and have to scrutinize what it means for me to enter a space of non minorities and feel intensely alone because I know I’m seen differently. Oppression is not a joke. Don't you have to totally correct your mistakes before you laugh about them? We wouldn't (I hope) make fun of terminally ill person’s illness while they’re going through it, so why is okay to joke about my current and unwavering oppression? Racism still exists. American society is built on an oppressive system that still does just that: oppress. It has been built on the backs of incredibly damaging stereotypes about minorities, and now they’re reinforcing those stereotypes to white America under the guise of art. You cannot destroy the image of Uganda and the entire continent when those stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in Western thought. Apparently, so-called liberal Broadway doesn’t understand this. It’s time white America does a bit better and not dehumanize the Black race just for some laughs.
I hope every white person in there cracking up to their racism was uncomfortable when the only Black people in the orchestra (a waste of 3rd row seats), stood up at intermission, collected all of their things, and walked out. And I did read the synopsis of Act 2, which was not the waking up from a dream sequence, so as a whole this play has failed to be anything but degrading.
I will ask one thing of the surrounding white audience, think about your privilege once in a while and ask yourself if the humor you laugh at contributes to the destruction of my humanity.
Fuck you, Book of Mormon.