Is the “Book of Mormon – the Musical” racist?

BMThe 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.

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17 thoughts on “Is the “Book of Mormon – the Musical” racist?

  1. I entirely agree with your assessment: The Book of Mormon (which I saw on Broadway last night) reinforces every negative stereotype of Africa and Africans. While the white well-dressed, characters’ only struggles are those of questioning their faith and their sexuality, the Africans are across-the-board, impoverished, diseased and morally depraved. While I do not believe that it is the producers’ obligation to present a positive (or, God forbid, even-handed) depiction of Africans, it is depressing to be in a theater full of white people whose only exposure to Africa or Africans are these completely negative caricatures. I have absolutely no trust that the white theater-goers have the ability (or willingness) to discern these depictions from the reality, i.e., African countries have modern cities and banks and millions of healthy, articulate well-dressed men and women. Even more depressing is the thought that this show has been so popular for so long!
    BDL, Huntington, NY

  2. (SPOILER ALERT) Thanks for writing this. I’ve just come from the show and had exactly the same response (in fact I came across the post because as soon as I got back to my hotel I googled “Book Of Mormon racist” to see if I had somehow completely missed something). I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out, for the irony of this checklist of stereotypes of Africa to be revealed (as it was so well in the gag with the neighbour “doing African” at the airport) and it just never ever came. And the very ending with the African “missionaries” going door-to-door and literally spreading the word of their white saviour I found utterly uncomfortable, especially in a theatre full of almost exclusively white people, on their feet cheering.There’s some great satire around other things and it’s a brilliant show for sure – great performances, great songs, some genuinely funny moments but it’s so far from the subversive piece it thinks it is, at least with regards to race, that I just don’t get why it’s so lauded. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite such an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment in the theatre.

  3. As a Black woman, I was highly offended by the clearly racist depictions of Africans in this musical. And shocked even more that no mention if this had come to my attention through all the acclaim. I should have demanded a refund.

  4. The stereotypes of Africa and Africans are for the most part true. They were making fun of the politically correct for being in denial. What you call ‘racism’ is simply your denial of reality and shaming of those telling the truth, not complying with your ‘religion’. You’re “turning it off, like a light switch”, trying to create an alternative reality for yourself, as do Mormons. The musical was mocking more than just Mormons.

    • I’ve travelled a lot in Africa and so can feel quite confident in saying that the depiction of the musical is quite certainly not ‘for the most part true’! Almost all is peaceful, pleasant and friendly.

      • I’ve never been to Africa, but one stereotype that I think was satirized well as the ‘rape with infants’thing. I don’t think anyone in the theater has the preconception that that happens more often in Africa than in America (by sickos). I think the Sudanese villagers were stereotyped for the shock it gives to the missionaries. It’s not like the setting was a suburb of Nairobi. I understand that not all of Africa is war torn, but perhaps most Americans don’t, like they (we?) don’t know not all of Mexico is a warzone.

        I also think the Africa send off dance by Mrs. Whatever (still in SLC) was satirizing the audience’s preconceptions, but they didn’t really take it any further than that. Except maybe the “I am Africa” song? Isn’t that to be interpreted as joking about Bono’s efforts in Africa and our false sense of how much has been accomplished?

        I guess I would overall agree that the play’s stereotypes didn’t advance anyone’s knowledge of modern Africa, but COME ON! It’s a Musical! Did you learn anything about the Oregon Territory in 1850 from 7 Brides for 7 Brothers? Or from Oklahoma!? or any other pseudo-historical fiction Musical? It’s just supposed to be a good time.

        Maybe the creators will take some of this criticism to heart when they write the Sequel: Book of ______ :p

    • As an African woman, I was extremely uncomfortable with the portrayal of Africans and Africa and equally offended by the room full of white people laughing at our expense. I left after intermission and your comments about this article has reinforced my views and thoughts about the all white audience seated around me.
      I completely disagree that the stereotypes are true and it speaks volumes about you and the entire audience seated around me.

  5. As an African woman I was highly offended and to Val and J Hackne you just reinforced what I thought about the All White audience cheering and laughing at my people and continent’s expense. It’s a different feeling when you are NOT the one being ridiculed. And by the way as you indicated you have never been to the continent so how can you make a statement that the stereotypes are true!

  6. Thank you for this. I 100% agree. I am still not sure if I am uncomfortable because of the treatment of Africa and its ppl by the musical or because of my own daily complicity in it (white privilege and all). As an actor, I am always happy to see work created for ppl of color, but the stereotypes mapped onto those bodies were almost heart breaking. I love South Park and generally think the creators’ intentions are to make us look at ourselves, but in this case I think…I don’t know, I just feel dirty.

  7. I feel the same way for people who walked out of the play feeling uncomfortable. I’m an African American female who watched it with her white husband. Even though he was dying laughing, I noticed that l wasn’t laughing as hard as the majority of “white” people around me or chuckling for my husband’s sake. I was trying to figure out if I had “missed the satire” deep beneath the stereotypes of Africans or what they call Ugandans. But it was hard to explain to him that if the Africans stereotypes of negative imagery was on the same weight as the mormons then maybe they would of had me there. But alas in my head it seemed like a war of negative stereotypes vs. good stereotypes. My husband enjoyed it, I couldn’t, even though I love South Park. I wasn’t looking for anything deep in the play but I was hoping to see a comedy that I could enjoy but it really felt onesided.

  8. I just saw this musical tonight. I’m a white woman, and I laughed very little, actually, even though I know how clever the creators of South park are. I couldn’t stop cringeing at the stereotypes of Africa and its people. While the audience around me clapped and cheered, I wondered what I was missing. Kind of surprised at the huge acclaim this show has gotten. I felt uncomfortable. Reading these posts has helped me.

    • As an African, I must say first that it was a great show in terms of it’s music pieces and the pacing of the story. Sadly, the depiction of Africa was bad and the Africans were used as just a plot device for the Westerners which is a reoccurring theme (Blended anyone?). I love satire and I would of loved if there was satire on the Africans but they were just a plot device at the end. I don’t think this is entirely due to race although highly motivated by it as I went with African Americans and they enjoyed it and had those stereotypes of Africa reinforced. I believe it stems from the views of all Westerners of Africa,

  9. I too am glad this blog and comments are here. Saw the show for the first time yesterday in Minneapolis. White woman, and had a strong negative reaction. Totally agree with almost all the comments. Nikki, the way you phrased it was very helpful: I felt the African stereotypes were much more negative than the Mormon stereotypes. The “weighting” was so imbalanced. Also, the issues the villagers faced were so much more horrific than any inconvenience the missionaries faced. Quite a bit of it felt very ugly to me. I kept wondering how the actors felt doing this show over and over. Thank you to everyone who wrote here,

  10. Yes, I saw the musical in Minneapolis last weekend….so excited, as I’d been hearing nothing but great things about it for years. But I became uncomfortable as soon as the protagonist learned he was heading to Africa. I was shocked and saddened at the racist stereotypes, and rather than the evening of laughter I had looked forward to, I spent the intermission and ride home with my wife processing the experience. Why in the world did the writers choose Africa, when they could have gotten as many laughs placing the protagonist in Kansas, Oklahoma or some other state that people like to make fun of but not at the expense of people of color? And the actors–how awful that one of the few Broadway sensations to feature a large number of African/American roles relies on offensive racist stereotypes for laughs. I can imagine the struggle some (all?) of these actors may have had attempting to justify participation in order to gain experience and move their careers forward. And perhaps most difficult for me was the realization that, though I think of the friends and co-workers who had spoken highly of the musical as quite progressive people, not one mentioned these very problematic elements. Had they done so, I could have spent my money on something truly enjoyable rather than enduring an evening feeling unsettled, uncomfortable, and uncertain why so many people seemed to enjoy every minute of the show.

  11. Pingback: The Book of Mormon is racist trash – angrymixedchick

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