Last night I saw Book of Mormon at the Broward County Preforming Arts Center. We bought the tickets months ago and I was really looking forward to it because I’ve heard only good things, which is surprising because I don’t have a whole lot of good things to say. What I do have to say is this: Book of Mormon is painfully racist and not really all that funny.
If you haven’t seen it, let me summarize: Two 19-year-old Mormon missionaries go to Uganda, Africa on a mission to recruit and baptize new Mormons. There is lunacy that ensues, which is the basic plot of the play but who could even focus on that when the “African” reality represented is so stereotypical, derogatory and embarrassingly prejudicial. In the context of this play there are two versions of Africa – the “lion king” version, which harkens to ideas of the noble savage, glorious nature, dancing, singing and marching around with spears and the “AIDS, MURDER and FEMALE CIRCUMCISION ” version, which is presented as the ‘legitimate’ spoof of Africa’s reality. In other words, the “lion king” version is what the missionaries think Africa will be like, and the “AIDS, MURDER and FEMALE CIRCUMCISION ” version is what Africa is “really” like when they arrive.
I am not going to deny the fact that Africa – a continent three times the size of the United States – has its share of problems and that included in those problems are war, female genital mutilation (FGM), AIDS, rape and other complicated and destructive forces. And it’s true that these are the aspects of Africa that the news likes to focus on. Arguably, because maintaining a racist understanding of Africa makes it that much easier for Western cultures to pillage the continent for natural resources like titanium and diamonds without a whole lot of outcry. Despite all this, in reality Africa is a spectacular place of innovation and culture, which has given us amazing men and women, including the likes of Chinua Achebe, Leymah Gbowee, Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela – who died today. Here’s a youtube video that looks at these stereotypes:
Book of Mormon took the stereotypical understanding of Africa as an untamable, contaminated place – an understanding that is linked to a history of racism but usually based on ignorance and quickly alleviated/dispelled with even a smidge of exposure – to an extreme, which showed no consideration or respect for African people and affirmed a colonialist history of racism.
For example, in the Ugandan town that the Mormon Missionaries were sent to many of the people have AIDS – not HIV, AIDS. One of the African men believes that if he has sex with a virgin he will cure his AIDS. None of the adult women in the town are virgins – because clearly Africans are promiscuous (sarcasm) – so this man attempts to rape a baby. This attempted rape is repeatedly noted as a punch line in the song lyrics and scenes. This scenario is racist on so many levels – the assumed promiscuity of the African people, the horrifying ignorance of a man who would believe that raping a baby could cure disease, the prevalence of AIDS etc. There are other instances that are equally absurd as well as little prickles like the two African men who steal the missionaries’ bags as soon as they arrive, and local woman who warns the missionaries to shut their windows at night to keep out the murderers. It’s appalling.
It’s worth noting that the play also clearly critiques Mormonism by highlighting the need for good Mormons to “just believe” the dubious roots of the Mormon religion and strangely the entire playbill was filled with ads for learning more about the Mormon faith. This is painfully ironic considering this is a play that actively attempts to render the Mormon faith inane and ludicrous.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that lately, it’s not just Book of Mormon that has offended me. Go ahead call me a party pooper or a grouchy bitch, I’m okay with that because these ideas, images, representation lack a basic sense of respect for the people they are portraying. It’s not funny when people make jokes about rape, bodies, races, nationalities, genders, etc. These kinds of jokes are lazy. They rely of human cruelty and hate. And to be honest, I’m not sure why we think they’re funny. How does it even make sense that we find ways to laugh at rape? What is up with that?