The Book of Mormon debuted on Broadway in March of 2011. Four years, $357.2 million, and nine Tony Awards later, it remains one of the most successful plays in recent memory. I still had not seen it, and was given three tickets to a show at The Kennedy Center last Friday. Two close friends and I sat inside the theater and watched The Book of Mormon in its entirety.
Fuck that play.
The Book of Mormon, in addition to being duller satire than what creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker—of South Park fame—are capable of, is one of the most racist pieces of media I have ever seen. Reactions to this conclusion will undoubtedly be that I am someone who is unfunny and cannot take a joke.
First, fuck you, I'm hilarious.
Secondly, as someone who has binge-watched eight seasons of South Park, I knew what I was getting into, and I'm fond of Parker and Stone's brand of comedy. In fact, South Park features some of the best, most biting satire and criticism we have today—that includes jokes that are made at the expense of black people. The Book of Mormon is different.
I walked into the theater knowing practically nothing about the play. I only knew that it was about Mormonism and that it was supposed to be hysterical. So when protagonists Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two Mormon missionaries, were ordered to travel to Uganda to perform baptisms (yes, there are spoilers, but the whole point is you shouldn't watch this garbage), I anxiously shifted in my seat and glanced at my friends, who also looked wary.
But we kept watching—I imagined the tickets were pretty expensive, we got dressed up, and hey, maybe it would turn around. Sure enough, when the two Elders bode farewell to their families at the Salt Lake City airport, they were surprised with a performance of a black woman in a headdress and body paint. Elder Price's father called it "A real Lion King send-off." The woman revealed that not only was she not African, but she had also never been to the continent. The tongue-in-cheek moment was funny and offered a critique of the white characters' view of African people. This was the type of satire that made South Park golden. This was the last time I would laugh for the rest of the night.
Price and Cunningham land in Uganda to discover that it is not at all like Salt Lake City. The Ugandan people are writhing in poverty, disease, and a general obliviousness about their condition. Sure, there is a musical number in which they all curse God for making their lives so miserable—much to the dismay of the Mormon missionaries there to spread the word of their benevolent god—but the ignorance of the villagers is on full display. One man thinks having sex with frogs will cure his AIDS, one woman thinks that a typewriter is used to send text messages to her friends, and the local doctor complains about maggots in his scrotum so frequently that if he had any other lines, they were forgettable. Every negative stereotype about black people—we are ignorant, dirty, violent, sexually insatiable—manifests itself in the Ugandan characters.
Fuck that play.
Though discouraged by their new surroundings, Price and Cunningham are reassured by their fellow missionaries and set out to convert Ugandan people to the Church of Latter Day Saints the next morning. The entire village is then confronted by the one-eyed warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked (seriously). The General terrorizes the village, promising to circumcise any and all women he comes across. When a man starts to speak up to defend the women of the village, the General shoots him in the head, splattering Cunningham and Price with blood. This, while visceral and gruesome, did absolutely nothing to propel the plot or character construction. The man who was killed was nameless, and no one even mourned the fact that he was so unceremoniously gunned down. It's not even like we needed proof that the General was violent and malicious—he was literally cruising around looking for women to mutilate. This act of violence against a black body was totally and completely gratuitous. For the price of admission, I was allowed to watch a predominantly white audience as they watched a predominantly white cast watch black people pretend to kill each other.
Fuck that play.
The Book of Mormon does not just belittle black men, and because there are only two white women briefly featured in the entire play, any and all misogyny is unapologetically directed toward black women. For Nabulungi, a villager and the most prominent black woman in the play, this meant that she was the play's principal love interest, and consequently bore the brunt of being the main subject of the male gaze. It was with Nabulungi who Elder Cunningham allegedly became enamored, though he was not so enamored that he ever remembered her name, referring to her as "Neosporin," and "Jon Bon Jovi." It was Nabulungi who Cunningham promised to baptize and whisk away from the perils of Uganda to the purported sanctuary of Salt Lake City. She was the subject of the play's "white savior" joke that actually paid off ultimately. The missionaries do not rescue the Ugandan people, and they hardly improve the quality of their lives. Had the joke stopped there, it would have been great, and I could say something nice about how the play didn't ruin the one prominent female character. But it didn't.
Instead, Nabulungi's baptism, performed by Cunningham, was treated as her losing her virginity. Setting aside the very real critiques about the very idea of virginity—namely, that it doesn't actually exist and is simply another patriarchal tool to control women—juxtaposing religion and sex here is inappropriate. There is a long, documented history of white men colonizing black and brown people in places like Uganda, using rape as a tool to spread Christianity. Was Nabulungi raped on stage? Perhaps not, but there are better ways to communicate that she and Cunningham were romantically entangled. Invoking a history of the sexual violation and manipulation of black people at the hands of white people spreading religion is just wholly unnecessary for the construction of a play about Mormonism.
The hypersexualization doesn't stop with Nabulungi. During a play that the villagers perform for the senior-most Elder visiting the camp, they, as implicitly instructed by Elder Cunningham, simulate Joseph Smith having sex with a frog. To do so, the villagers used dildos that could not have been any shorter than two feet in length. Why is the constant hypersexualization of the black body necessary to tell a story about Mormonism? Why must the old trope that black men are more sexually potent be present in a story about Mormon missionaries? If this was satire what larger societal truth was revealed? What was the punch line?
Worse still, the resolution of the story is practically non-existent. The play's villain was dispatched in a way that was hokey and forgettable, the Ugandan people remained flat, uninteresting characters, and Elders Price and Cunningham were sent back to the U.S. without accomplishing much of anything. This play only barely had a plot. The only payoff at all is that the Mormon Elders learn that the actual word from Joseph Smith is not as crucial as the intentions behind the words, and that they should strive to implement his message in their daily lives. So after watching over two hours of highlighting the stupidity, poverty, uncleanliness, and violence that consumes the Ugandan villagers, we reach the end of the play only to find that a bunch of white boys traveled from Utah to Africa to find themselves.
Fuck that play.
As my friends and I stood to leave the theater at the start of curtain call, I felt my stomach twist as theater-goers glared. Yes, what we did is typically considered a faux pas, but I was more upset that we seemed to be the only unsettled people in the theater. And as we walked back to the train station in near silence, all I could think was: why didn't anyone say anything? Theater tickets are expensive and that undoubtedly contributes to who is granted access to plays in the first place. But certainly the law of averages would suggest that someone—black, white, or otherwise—would have seen this play and felt even mildly disgusted. I was even willing to assume that I just was totally ignorant of theater culture, and that The Book of Mormon's race problems had been thoroughly noted and discussed.
Here is an excerpt from Ben Brantley's review in the New York Times:
"On my fourth visit to 'The Book of Mormon' on a recent night, the show still had me at 'Hello,' the first word of the first song in this long-running musical. I had anticipated a certain falling off of religious fervor and discipline in this ebullient satire about naive Mormon missionaries in Uganda, written and composed by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, directed by Mr. Parker and Casey Nicholaw, also its choreographer. Three years is a long time for a peppy musical to stay peppy."
"Peppy" is simply not how I would describe a play that saved all of its subtlety to critique Mormonism, and employed nearly every crude joke imaginable about blackness for Ugandan characters who were barely more than props. Quite frankly, there is nothing about this play that required it to take place in Uganda, and at that point, its choice as a setting seems to be nothing more than convenient cover to legitimize racist jokes. Brantley watched this play and the denigration of black people four times, and then plagiarized "Jerry Maguire." The former is worse than the latter, but both are pretty terrible.
According to the Washington Post's Peter Marks, "The marvel of 'The Book of Mormon' is that even as it profanes some serious articles of faith, its spirit is anything but mean. The ardently devout and comedically challenged are sure to disagree." I'm assuming that if your criticisms of the play are not about its lampooning of Mormonism that you fall into the "comedically challenged" category. Marks is actually correct. I find it challenging to find anything about this play comedic, precisely because I don't think minstrelsy is funny. But four years of commercial success prove that some, namely wealthy theater aficionados, enjoy minstrel shows.
You can, if you choose, balk at the categorization of this as minstrelsy, but the fact remains that so many of the jokes in The Book of Mormon come at the expense of poor, sick, ailing black people. These jokes are rarely a means to a comedic end, but an end in and of themselves. We currently exist in a state of emergency. One in which black people are killed by the police at alarming rates; one in which black women and women of color make less money than white and black men, and white women; one in which more black people are in prison than were in enslaved in 1850. At a time in which black pain can be so easily quantified, who are the people who would find black pain on the stage laughable?
Some reviews, like one from Janice C. Simpson for The Root and NPR, criticized The Book of Mormon's treatment of race. However, those were dwarfed by all of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, not to mention all of the Tony Awards. How have we allowed this play to exist and flourish for four years without saying anything about its racism?
To watch The Book of Mormon and not feel a twinge of disgust is to truly lack sympathy for black people. There is no wiggle room, no gray area. If you laughed and gave this play rave reviews (some of which failed to mention race at all), you and I watched the same desecration of black life with vastly different reactions. I watched someone pretend to shoot a black person in the head and cringed, you laughed. I groaned at black people being manipulated in the name of Christianity, you chuckled.
Fuck The Book of Mormon.
[originally published for Slant News on 7/29/2015]