“You’re not going to like that,” my partner said, when I told him I was going to see The Book of Mormon. Made by the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, I was aware it was a controversial production. I had also seen Avenue Q, which shared the same musical composer/lyricist, Robert Lopez. I knew there might be “offensive jokes”, despite South Park always being on after my bedtime when I was at primary school; I was relatively unfamiliar with the programme beyond 10-year-olds singing about chocolate salty balls in the playground… But I had heard good things, so I asked my Gran for us to see it as my Christmas present.
There were moments of unease, where I analysed the humour – who was meant to be laughing? Those who agreed with the bigoted, backwards views of the characters, or those who recognised the ridiculousness of them? One key example of this was when the Mormon characters associated Africa with The Lion King and a host of stereotypical and racist assumptions. I think it’s fair to say that The Lion King moment was poking fun at the ignorance that ties in with Africa being considered ‘one massive, undifferentiated place.’ This is a criticism not only stated by Sayantani DasGupta, but also by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the TED talk, The Danger of the Single Story. However, the most problematic aspect of the production for me, was that, by contradiction, it seems to buy into the idea of this single story in its representation of Uganda. The list runs through the extremes of presenting us with baby-rapists to the idea of a typewriter being confused with a mobile phone.
the most problematic aspect of the production for me, was that, by contradiction, it seems to buy into the idea of this single story in its representation of Uganda
By the end of the first act, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There were certain parts I found laugh-out-loud funny, and I appreciated the nuances of the satire, but I couldn’t help but wonder what Ugandans would think of the musical. After all, I have written about offensive jokes in the past, and the audience shouldn’t be in doubt about who is the butt of the joke. At times, I find I am particularly sensitive to humour that makes light of serious subjects, and even felt that way of Sara Pascoe’s Christmas Show at Battersea Arts Centre, when she made satirical jokes such as only caring about the homeless at Christmas. So, when some of the lyrics of Hasa diga Eebowai or Fuck you, God dealt with serious issues such as genital cutting, which is a real example of gender-based violence, there was a feeling of discomfort at laughing at that.
However, the passion of the cast playing the Ugandan people encapsulated the complexities of these ideas as both serious issues, and a sense of powerlessness that is associated with the title, containing multiple meanings in this parody of The Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’. Anyone who has experienced a kind of tragedy in their life will understand that humour can be something powerful in hard times, and it can come in unexpected forms. I also thought this of Turn it Off, including the very real issue that when someone close to you dies of cancer, you then worry about also getting cancer. This song was one of the highlights for me, because I wholeheartedly disagree with suppressing your emotions, and this song mocked that extremely damaging idea.
My favourite character was Nabulungi, as I felt she was a strong female character, given equal space to the two Mormons (Price and Cunningham) who go to “save” the people in this Ugandan village. Her role existed beyond the two-dimensional stereotypes discussed earlier, she had a beautiful voice when singing, and was a great comedic actor. There was also a slight hint at an unlikely romance between her and Cunningham, which culminates in her baptism. For some reason, this sexualized double entendre of the baptism made it all the more hilarious. Some would argue against this depiction of the baptism, but I personally enjoyed the unexpectedness and the contrast between something meant to be holy, and something often entangled with shame with regard to religion (sex). Surely, this could be seen as the virgin/whore dichotomy being broken?
Overall, I enjoyed the musical for its songs, satirical humour, and for Nabulungi’s character. I can’t deny I was entertained; it was thought-provoking, and I enjoyed the nuances that poked fun at those perpetuating neo-colonialism. However, I haven’t been able to stop the gnawing feeling that this isn’t good enough. I couldn’t help wish that there were more theatrical productions with as big a cast of black actors, and that I didn’t need to wonder who the humour was directed at, whether the audience were on the same page politically and whether it’s racist (usually, if that’s a question, the answer is yes).
The Book of Mormon, for whatever its intentions were, has ended up perpetuating the myths of Africa it may have attempted to dismantle
The main problem comes down to what Elad Ben Elul says: “not once were the stereotypes and clichés broken, questioned or challenged.” So, on that note, it sadly seems that The Book of Mormon, for whatever its intentions were, has ended up perpetuating the myths of Africa it may have attempted to dismantle by mocking the Mormon characters. Additionally, it also seems to reinforce the white-saviour narrative, with its happy-ending, and although there is some humour in its circular Hello song, sometimes you need to think about the implications of what you are laughing at. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a question of liking or disliking, so although my partner was right to some extent, our preferences and opinions are more complex than that.
Feature image © The Book of Mormon