A Cringe-worthy Depiction of Africa
By Max Perry Mueller
Musicals and Mormons. As a longtime fan of musicals and as a longtime student of Mormons, logic says I should have loved The Book of Mormon musical. But leaving the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Manhattan in December 2011 after taking in a pre-Christmas show, I was disoriented.
What had I just seen? Was this a great musical? Yes. Was this an outrageous but generally fair take on Mormon mission culture and Mormon belief, a missiological farce? Yes. Was it also something more sinister, even if only naïvely so? Yes.
Let me say a bit more about my longtime affinity for musicals. In a way, I grew up on them. My stepbrother, Jason Raize, played the adult Simba in the original cast of the Broadway musical version of The Lion King. Before he landed the biggest role of his all-too-short life, Jason had played Pontius Pilate in the national touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar. During my first two years of high school, many weekends were spent with my mother and stepfather traveling from North Carolina to Connecticut, catching countless shows on that tour’s East Coast swings. Jason was only nineteen then. My parents wanted to support him—my mother stuffing his suitcases with endless care packages that included toothpaste, Q-tips, and prophylactics—and to keep an eye on him, too.
More than any other work of performing art, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s passion play qua rock opera established my musical aesthetic. I want my musicals big, emotional, and preferably with guitar solos. Jesus Christ Superstar was also a religious education. To my mind, the musical is a work of sophisticated biblical exegesis, successfully interweaving the very different Jesuses presented in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into one cohesive (if ambivalent) Christ.1 In Gethsemane, Jesus demands in song that his father “take this cup away from me, for I don’t want to taste its poison, feel it burn me. . . .” On the cross, Jesus becoming Christ exhorts in his last breath, “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
To me, Ted Neeley, who played the titular role for forty years—longer than Jesus’ own life span—was Jesus. An idealistic dreamer, quick to anger and to love. Like a 1970s hard rocker, Jesus screamed his way through arguments with Judas. He sparred with Pilate and endured whippings from the Roman soldiers. For Pilate’s family watching enthralled in the audience, the most poignant moment was Pilate’s dismissal of Jesus’ fate with a ceremonial washing of his hands. One night after a performance, we were dining with Jason. Neeley—still in character it seemed, perhaps now as the risen Christ walking among us—came to our table and placed his hands on my brother’s shoulders. To us, the Roman prefect’s family eating chicken wings, he jested affectionately, “You see what he did to me!”
I also grew up with Mormons. I was born in Wyoming, and for the first few years of my life I lived across the street from a large, happy, and boisterous Mormon family. As an only child and the son of a single mother, I would invite myself over for play dates, slipping (I thought unnoticed) in the front door and heading directly to the basement where boxes of toys and couches of kids waited to entertain me. Call it a mother’s intuition, but Nancy, the matriarch, always seemed to know when I would be staying for dinner. Next to Philip, a boy my own age, was a place for me (“Max’s place”) at the dining room table. Mealtime began with heads bowed and, in the Mormon fashion, with arms crossed (not hands clasped). John, the patriarch, offered a prayer thanking “Heavenly Father” for the bounty of hot plate, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk that we were about to receive.
After my mother and I left Wyoming for North Carolina, I began studying Mormons. That is to say, I read and reread John D. Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical Great Brain books, a series of children’s stories that take place in a fictional southern Utah town in the late 1890s, in the years after Utah became America’s forty-fifth state. John, the youngest Fitzgerald boy, narrates the activities of his precocious and mischievous older brother Tom, “the Great Brain.” Their father is the publisher of the town’s newspaper and one of Adenville’s leading men. This despite the fact that the Fitzgeralds are Catholic, and thus “gentile” in a town where even Jews are gentiles and where Mormons outnumber all others three to one. More than the Great Brain’s convoluted “get rich” schemes, it was John’s descriptions of small-town life in Mormon “Dixie” that drew me in: the trips to the ZCMI store (the LDS Church–owned co-op) for rock candy; the county fair pie contest, frequently won by “Mama” Fitzgerald, who added a touch of brandy to her entries—tempting the taste buds of the teetotaling (and unsuspecting) Mormon judges; the Sundays when the town divided in two, the Mormons going to their ward houses, and everybody else—Protestant and Catholic alike—attending service at Reverend Holcomb’s church. The Reverend preached “strictly from the Bible” so as not to offend either the reformed or the “Papists” in his unique congregation.
It was John, the preteen ethnographer in these books, who got me hooked on the possibility of living among the Mormons, to observe them and to learn from them, even if I would never cross that line between “gentile” and saint.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the infamous South Park provocateurs, also share a professed love for Mormons and musicals. The Book of Mormon musical was an organic outgrowth of the pair’s affection for the stage. As he put it in the March 11, 2011, New York Magazine interview, Parker was often in the audience in his rural Colorado’s hometown playhouse watching “the guy that ran the grocery store . . . doing Oklahoma.” Stone and Parker have integrated classic Broadway kitsch even into their most political works; their full-length movie, Team America World Police—a send-up of America’s wrongheaded efforts at nation building in the Middle East and South Asia—is also a musical.
The Book of Mormon has a sunny, naïvely happy, Rodgers and Hammerstein feel to it—juxtaposed, of course, with incessant f-bombs and references to violent rape, disease, famine, and war. After all, the musical takes place mostly in Uganda—or, as Parker and Stone imagine Uganda. War-torn Africa is where two sweet but clueless nineteen-year-old Mormon missionaries are sent to fight Satan as “Soldiers of the Army of the Church of Jesus Christ . . . of Latter-day Saints.” They had hoped for Orlando (the first of many digs at Disney). Instead, they are sent by the church fathers to a continent that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had largely avoided before 1978, since blacks had been considered eternally cursed for both ancient and pre-mortal sins, and ineligible for full membership in the LDS community.
This is the sugar and salt New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley gushed about in his March 24, 2011, review, “Missionary Men with Confidence in Sunshine.” Heaven on Broadway does exist, he extolled. “I am here to report that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water.” Sure, Brantley acknowledged that the show is “blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak.” But really, it’s harmless fun, and “wholesome,” just like the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics The Sound of Music and The King and I that Brantley says The Book of Mormon “references” in its plot “about naïve but plucky educators set down in an unfamiliar world, who find their feet, affirm their values and learn as much as they teach.”
While broadway and its critics stumbled over themselves to congratulate Parker, Stone, and Robert Lopez (of Avenue Q fame) for reinventing the musical genre, from Salt Lake City came an audible sigh of relief. The official statement from the LDS Church, posted on the LDS Newsroom blog February 7, 2011, read in full:
The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.
That was it. The Church took the ribbing and seemed glad it wasn’t worse. (Compare this with the official denunciations from the Roman Catholic Church and the picketing of movie theaters after the release of The Da Vinci Code movie). According to Beliefnet Mormon blogger Jana Riess, the reason for the Church’s nonreaction was that, despite the title, The Book of Mormon has very little to do with the scriptural Book of Mormon. Save for a few early references to golden plates buried in “ancient Upstate New York” and to the angel Moroni as a disco star, Stone, Parker, and Lopez leave alone the sacred (and contentious) history of ancient Israelites–turned–Amerindians contained in the Book of Mormon itself, which “translator” and soon-to-be prophet Joseph Smith published in March 1830. Stone and Parker had already told the Joseph Smith story in an episode of South Park. The angel Moroni visits a teenage Joseph Smith in his room just miles from where Moroni would show him the golden plates that would become the Book of Mormon. The angel, the last of the neo-Israelite, American-based “Nephites,” explains to Joseph that after centuries of living in the New World and practicing a form of Christianity, “eventually my [all white] people were killed by the other tribe of Israel and as punishment God turned their skin red. These are the Native Americans you know today,” while the chorus, to make sure Stone and Parker’s editorializing is not misunderstood, chants “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb!”
A spoof of modern Mormon missionary culture—embodied in the overly confident “Eagle Scout,” Elder Price, and his missionary ““companion,” the chubby, sycophantic, pathological liar Elder Cunningham—is more palatable for Mormons than satirizing the origin myths of the Mormon dispensation. At the end of the musical, neither the Mormons nor the Ugandans lose faith, though this “faith” goes through a literal metamorphosis (suffice it to say that Elder Cunningham becomes the real “hero,” almost a latter-day Joseph Smith). Jana Riess concluded her March 22, 2011, review of the musical with a cautious thumbs-up, even stating that she is “honored to be lampooned” with what she calls sensitivity to, even affection for, Mormonism.
Riess, like many Mormon viewers, appreciated how hard the producers worked to get the Mormon things right. Mormons recognized with bemusement that the musical’s best-received number, “I Believe!” is a play on Mormon testimonies of faith. Such ritual and public reaffirmations of a saint’s Mormonness are key components to many Sunday services when a saint is “moved” to walk up to the pulpit and deliver a litany of faith statements. In front of AK-47–touting warlords, Elder Price belts out epistemological truth claims intended to progress from the mundane to the ridiculous.
I believe that the Lord, God, created the universe.
I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America
I am a Mormon,
And a Mormon just believes . . .
So far, so good. This is all true, Mormons would say, if not really an important part of their everyday worldview. They don’t think on a daily basis about ancient Israelite oarsmen, but they can still respond with a chuckle to Mormon esoterica taken out of context and sung as a full-throated defense of Mormon particularity and self-assuredness. But, directly addressing black African warlords who look poised to slaughter this “white boy,” Elder Price continues:
I believe that Satan has a hold of you
I believe that the Lord, God, sent me here
And I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black
You can be a Mormon . . .
And a Mormon who just believes!
It is here, the only direct reference to the LDS Church’s troubling history with race relations, that The Book of Mormon musical goes off the rails for me, veering into something dangerous. I agree with The New York Times and the Tony Award committee that The Book of Mormon is great for musicals and not that bad for Mormons. It may even be good for Mormons, as Jana Riess implies. Getting picked on, our mothers always told us, is a sign of affection.
It is no Jesus Christ Superstar, my personal gold standard. But it couldn’t be. The point Stone, Parker, and Lopez are making is that to handle the issues they confront directly, to attempt to add solemnity to the troubles of East Africa, would only be sanctimonious and shallow. When you have “maggots in your scrotum,” as the doctor (yes, the doctor) of the Ugandan village periodically interjects throughout the musical, and when men rape babies to get rid of their AIDS, there is no adequate social, political, or theological response. “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” translated, we are told, into “Fuck You, God!”—The Book of Mormon‘s play on The Lion King‘s “Hakuna Matata”—is a concise theodicy of the actual hell on earth that The Book of Mormon’s Ugandans face.
Certainly, Uganda’s troubles are many, but the Uganda presented here looks nothing like the “real Uganda.”2 The Book of Mormon producers worked so hard to get the “Mormon thing” right, while completely ignoring the Ugandan culture, a struggling democracy and economy ravaged by years of war and disease. While Mormons may recognize themselves in The Book of Mormon (even if in a sort of “fun house mirror” reflection), Ugandans would not. Ugandans are not as buffoonish or as inhumane as those presented in The Book of Mormon. Stone, Parker, and Lopez’s lack of interest in trying to present anything beyond stereotypes of East Africa is embodied in the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Say what you will about the accuracy of the “Africans” depicted in The Lion King musical, at least “Hakuna Matata” actually means something in Swahili. “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is gibberish. If The Book of Mormon is blasphemous, as some have claimed, what bothers me more than any blasphemy (which I actually don’t see) is this linguistic imprecision. This suggests to me that while Stone, Parker, and Lopez are willing to dedicate themselves to careful study of Mormon soteriology, they cannot be bothered to go out into the middle of Forty-Second Street and find a Ugandan passing by to help them with some basic Luganda.
I agree with John Mark Reynolds, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, who called The Book of Mormon “a minstrel show for our present age” in The Washington Post. But I disagree that Mormons are the main minstrels. More on point is Jared Farmer, who wrote in Religion Dispatches:
I cringed in my seat at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre as I watched talented African American actors hamming up “African-ness” for cheap laughs. It brought to mind the long, shameful history of Americans—black and white—performing blackness (often in blackface) on stage for white audiences. The Book of Mormon wants to have it both ways. It wants to make fun of The Lion King and its African stereotypes by substituting more authentic stereotypes.3
As someone who is personally sensitized to the The Lion King connections here, I agree that the “Hakuna Matata” of The Lion King deserves to be taken to task for ignoring Africa as a site of real suffering. But, by presenting Africans as beyond redemption, so devastated by war, AIDS, and depravation, The Book of Mormon strips these Africans of any real agency, any real humanity. Even when the musical seems poised to end on a happy note, with warlords, villagers, and Mormon missionaries all joining hands to sing, “I am a Latter-day Saint / I help all those I can / The only latter day that matters is tomorrow!” the actual last line of the musical is the doctor’s now (too)-oft-repeated announcement, “I still have maggots in my scrotum!” Hope, religion, and community cannot repair the nihilism inherent in this depiction of Africa.
In The Lion King, Africans are literally animals. But with fathers caring for their sons, with vengeful uncles attempting to kill off potential rivals to leadership, with a young lion unsure that he can be the Lion King—to my mind these animals are more fully realized humans than the Africans presented in The Book of Mormon.
It’s a toss-up comparing the missionaries in both works—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon versus Timon, the meerkat, and Pumbaa, the warthog, in The Lion King, who, after all, provide Simba with the “faith” to claim his crown. But, for my Broadway dollar, I’d rather pay to see the Africans drawn by Disney than the stereotypes from Stone, Parker, and Lopez.
- I am well aware that not everyone agrees with my take on the exegesis in Jesus Christ Superstar. For example, Free Presbyterians think the musical is blasphemous, especially for what they see as the play’s denial of Jesus’ divinity. I find this ironic, since the last scene of the play, “John 19,” has Jesus as Christ enduring protracted suffering on a full-size cross.
- Margaret Blair Young has attempted to present both the “real” Elder Price and the “real” Africa, where Mormon missionaries fulfill their callings, in her series of posts, “The Real Elder Price,” on www.patheos.com.
- Jared Farmer, “Why The Book of Mormon (the Musical) Is Awesomely Lame,” www.religiondispatches.org.
Max Perry Mueller, MTS ’08, is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Harvard University, focusing on nineteenth-century Mormonism and African American religious history.