The musical ‘The Book of Mormon’ is hilarious, outrageous, and brilliant. It was one of the best nights out that I’ve had for a long time. So it was real regret that I concluded that the gleeful depiction of traditional stereotypes about Africa (dead babies, warlord, HIV, etc) reinforced rather than challenged general preconceptions.
The Book of Mormon is written and directed by the team who made South Park and Team America, and features many of the same traits; shocking, deliberately offensive humour, great songs, and a biting, clever, laugh-out-loud wit. It follows a mismatched pair of young Mormons who are sent to Northern Uganda to convert the natives and spread the word of Mormonism. They encounter warlords, beautiful women, a doctor with maggots in his scrotum, and eventually prevail, learning a few moral messages along the way.
Newspaper coverage has focused on the fact that the musical is ‘offensive’. I don’t have a problem with that. Of course the creators of South Park are offensive – that’s their stock in trade. So if you don’t want to hear jokes about female genital mutilation, aids, and dead children then don’t go to the show. It may be tasteless, but it’s certainly not racist – these are generic jokes which the authors have made many times before, and will make many times again.
The issue I had was with the depiction of Africa as a backwards hellhole filled with warlords and disease. It ticked off so many racist stereotypes that I could barely keep count. The natives were spiritually empty – the first song they sing is an African phrase that translates as ‘Fuck You God! One ongoing joke revolved around the fact that an African used a typewriter to text her friends – ironic given the innovation around mobile phones in East Africa. Overall, the Africans are just a background to the emotional development of the Mormons. When someone is shot by a warlord, this is primarily important because it makes one Mormon decide he should go home.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are clever people, so I looked hard for irony. Perhaps they were mocking our image of Africa, rather than Africa itself? If so, there was no sign of it. With the exception of a clever joke towards the end (which mocked an on-stage character – and implicitly us – for assuming that the Africans didn’t understand a metaphor) there wasn’t anything which suggested that the jokes should be taken at anything less than face value.
I have spoken to others who felt differently; and argued that the Book of Mormon is a clever satire. I suppose it’s difficult to tell the difference between ironic racist stereotypes and real ones. However, I think the key question is whether the average member of the public – who probably does believe, sadly, in much of the caricature that the Book of Mormon portrays – would come away with a different opinion, or with their views challenged in any way. Quite simply, the answer is no. There was almost nothing challenging in the play; the stereotypes were played for laughs, and little more.
In conclusion, the Book of Mormon is one of the funniest, liveliest, best produced shows around – and I strongly recommend that you don’t go to see it.