The Book of Mormon, a play by the creators of South Park about two Mormon missionaries to Uganda, won nine Tony awards Sunday night, including Best Musical, but according to an April review that was reprinted at The Root this week, its plot is nothing to celebrate. Observes writer Janice C. Simpson:
If you’re black and your skin is even a little thin, there’s plenty in this show to rub you the wrong way, too. The Ugandans whom the missionaries encounter are plagued by poverty, AIDS and an evil warlord who forcibly subjects women to circumcision. Despite these woes, the villagers are portrayed as good-hearted, if simple-minded, people. One keeps referring to an old battered typewriter as her “texting machine.” Another stomps around talking about raping babies because he believes that doing so will rid him of HIV. A dream sequence is set in hell, where the devil’s main disciples are Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran, who, a song explains, is there for his part in helping to free O.J.
Simpson notes that the material is “played for can’t-you-take-a-joke laughs,” but she didn’t find the subject matter funny.
“Parker and Stone [the show’s creators], who call themselves libertarians, have gotten away with this kind of cavalier attitude toward serious subjects for years because of their ability to sugarcoat it with faux irony,” Simpson declares before accusing the South Park provocateurs of “indulging in cultural colonialism of the most insidious kind.”
Sure, the head villager is seen as a wise man, and his daughter is the doe-eyed idealist who brings the sides together. But the show doesn’t work unless the villagers are seen mainly as noble savages who need white people to show them the way to enlightenment. And in the end, their salvation comes from believing in the white missionaries who have been dropped into their midst.
At The Grio, Earl Ofari Hutchinson read the play differently, writing today that it “skewers Mormons for the church’s decades of racial prejudice and for their prodigious proselytizing activities in Africa.” Hutchinson said the church’s history will “saddle” Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman with “the heavy burden of the religion’s racial history,” which he said includes its refusal to publicly apologize for its “long, stubborn, and dogmatic defense of alleged biblical encoded racism.”
Perhaps in anticipation of the musical’s Tony Award domination, Mark Oppenheimer reported on the black Latter Day Saints Genesis Group in his latest New York Times column. Oppenheimer attended a picnic with 300 members of the group in Utah and told stories of how they, as black Mormons, grapple with their church’s history of racial prejudice.
Oppenheimer quotes Max Perry Mueller, who is reportedly writing a dissertation at Harvard on African Americans and the Mormon church. Mueller told Oppenheimer that the Latter Day Saints have “made a very sincere effort” to welcome blacks, but few African Americans have joined. He also said the notion that until recently Mormons were “exceptionally exclusionary or racist is probably unfair” because “while no other large, predominantly white church barred blacks from the clergy in the 1970s, none was particularly integrated or had notable black leaders, either.”
If you’ve seen The Book of Mormon, what do you think? Is it racist, anti-religious, or just an equal-opportunity offender that shouldn’t be taken that seriously?