The highly acclaimed musical “The Book of Mormon” opened on Broadway in 2011 and is still playing to sold-out crowds there. Its touring company has successful runs in numerous cities every year, and this month had a one-week run at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore.
But given the political climate in 2019 and the blatant racism in the show, it seems like it is past time for white Americans to stop supporting it.
For the uninitiated, “The Book of Mormon” tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Africa to try to convert the “natives” to Mormonism. The play is set in a small village in Uganda, and herein lies the problem: The Ugandans are depicted as dumb, impoverished, superstitious, overly sexualized and childlike through clearly racist and denigrating tropes that feed into longstanding stereotypes of black people and Africa. Think of our current president when he called African nations the “s-hole” countries.
Very few mainstream commentators have addressed the racism in the show, but those who do note that the authors, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” are known for their take no prisoners, completely irreverent, inappropriate humor and excuse their portrayal of Africans as purely satirical. The fact that most reviewers have not mentioned the blatant racism in the show, points to a subtler issue, a pervasive anti-Africa bias to which most white Americans have been inculcated so thoroughly that few seem to have concerns about the show’s portrayal of Africans. The mere mention in the show that the missionaries are being sent to Uganda is a joke, at which the white audience laughs, as in the lucky ones are being sent to Europe, but the unfortunate are being sent to (god-forbid!) Africa.
In a country like ours, which has a long history of dehumanizing black people -- first as a way to justify slavery, then as a means to deny blacks rights as equal citizens -- why is the racism depicted in this show acceptable? Isn’t this just a more sophisticated version of the old minstrel shows that depicted blacks as lazy and stupid for the entertainment of whites, dressed up with vulgarity and cynicism typical of this day and age? If Baltimore is any indication, “The Book of Mormon” plays to an overwhelmingly white audience, who laugh heartily at the negative portrayal of Ugandans. The ending of the show is particularly problematic: The naïve 19-year-old white missionaries from Utah are able to “save” the villagers by telling them fantastical stories that give them hope and convince them to give up their barbaric ways. I get that this is a comedy, but really?
For a play that ostensibly pokes fun at Mormonism, the Mormon missionaries, who are depicted throughout the show as clueless, actually achieve some measure of success by the end because they help the apparently even more clueless villagers solve their problems. Wouldn’t it have been a better critic of religious proselytizing if the villagers had taught something to the young white men? Or if the white men had learned to value a different culture, even a little? But instead, the show plays fully into the white savior complex — that whites are superior to blacks and that only we can save blacks from themselves. This is a storyline that white America apparently has a hard time giving up.
Given the resurgence of white supremacy in this country, do we want to support a show with a narrative that reinforces that thinking? Many whites have asked themselves how they can address the pervasive racism that affects our country. One way is to recognize the insidious and subtle white supremacy that is part of our culture, including the Eurocentric lens through which we look at the world, and to challenge other white people to do the same. That means looking critically at so-called satire and questioning whether the supposed social commentary is accomplishing its intended goal – or the opposite.
Cheryl Hystad is a retired attorney living in Baltimore; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.