Why Is Everyone Ignoring The Obvious Issue In The Book Of Mormon?

Photo: Courtesy of The Book Of Mormon.
By Miles Johnson

The Book of Mormon debuted on Broadway in March of 2011. Four years, $366 million (and rising), and nine Tony Awards later, it remains one of the most successful shows in recent memory. Not long ago, two close friends and I finally 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.

Firstly, 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 out there today — and that includes jokes made at the expense of Black people.

The Book of Mormon is different.

I walked into the theater knowing practically nothing about the show. 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 ahead, 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 were bidding 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 never even 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.
Photo: Courtesy of The Book Of Mormon.
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 what you use to text your friends, and the local doctor complains about maggots in his scrotum so frequently that if he has any other lines, they are forgettable. Every negative stereotype about Black people — we are ignorant, dirty, violent, sexually insatiable — manifests itself in the Ugandan characters.

Though discouraged by their new surroundings, Price and Cunningham are reassured by their fellow missionaries and set out the next morning to convert Ugandan people to the Church of Latter Day Saints. The entire village is then confronted by the one-eyed war lord, 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 his village, the General shoots him in the head, splattering Cunningham and Price with blood. This, while visceral and gruesome, does absolutely nothing to propel the plot or character development forward.

The man who is killed is nameless, and no one mourns the fact that he is so unceremoniously gunned down. We are not lacking in other proof that the General is violent and malicious — he literally cruises around looking for women to mutilate. This act of violence against a Black body is 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; because there are only two white women briefly featured in the entire play, any and all misogyny is unapologetically directed toward Black women. Nabulungi, a villager and the most prominent Black woman in the play, is the musical’s principal love interest, and consequently bears the brunt of being the main object of the male gaze.
Photo: Courtesy of The Book Of Mormon.
It's Nabulungi who Cunningham promises to baptize and whisk away from the perils of Uganda to the purported sanctuary of Salt Lake City. She is the subject of the play’s “white savior” joke that actually pays off at the end. The missionaries do not rescue the Ugandan people, and they hardly improve the quality of their lives. And so if the joke had stopped there, it would have been great, and I could say something nice about how the show doesn't ruin the one prominent female character. But the joke doesn't stop there.
Instead, Nabulungi’s baptism, performed by Cunningham, is treated as her loss of virginity. Setting aside very real critiques about the very idea of virginity — namely that it doesn’t actually exist and is simply another patriarchal tool used 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 colonial tool in the name of spreading Christianity.

Is Nabulungi raped onstage? Perhaps not, but there are also better ways to communicate that she and Cunningham are romantically tangled. Invoking the history of sexual violation and manipulation of Black people at the hands of white people spreading religion is just wholly unnecessary to the narrative of a play about Mormonism.

And the hyper-sexualization doesn't stop at 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 use dildos that can't be less than 2 feet in length. Why is the constant hyper-sexualization of Black bodies necessary to tell a story about Mormonism? Why must the old stereotype that Black men are more sexually potent be present in a story about Mormon missionaries? And if this is satire, what broader social truth is being revealed here? What is the punch line?

Worse still, the story's resolution is practically nonexistent. Its villain is dispatched in a way that's both hokey and forgettable, the Ugandan people remain flat, uninteresting characters, and Elders Price and Cunningham are sent back to the U.S. without having accomplished much of anything.
Photo: Courtesy of The Book Of Mormon.
This play barely has a plot.

As my friends and I stood up to leave the theater at the start of the curtain call, I felt my stomach twist as theatergoers glared. Yes, what we did is typically considered a faux pas, but I was more upset that we seemed to be the only people unsettled by what we'd just seen. 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 factors in to who gets granted access to Broadway shows 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 of the show in The New York Times, upon revisiting the show three years after it opened:

“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 show that saves all of its subtlety to critique Mormonism, yet employs nearly every crude joke imaginable about Blackness in reference to Ugandan characters who are hardly more than props. There is nothing about this play that requires it to take place in Uganda, so the writers' choice to set it there seems to be little more than a convenient cover to legitimize racist jokes. Brantley watched this play and its denigration of Black people four times, and then plagiarized Jerry Maguire. The former is far worse than the latter, but both are pretty terrible.
Photo: Courtesy of The Book Of Mormon.
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 absolutely 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 show 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 men are in prison than were enslaved in 1850. At a time when Black pain is so glaringly quantifiable, who are the people who find Black pain onstage so laughable?

Some reviews, like one from Janice C. Simpson for The Root and NPR, criticized The Book of Mormon’s treatment of race. But these were dwarfed by all of the overwhelmingly positive reviews (some of which failed to mention race at all), 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 other people. There is no wiggle room, no grey area. If you laughed and gave this play a rave review , you and I watched the same desecration of Black lives 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.

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