‘The Book of Mormon’ punches down, racist tropes remain
“The Book of Mormon” fails to evolve, persisting racism in a controversial political climate. Is it time to pull the curtain?Image By: Photo courtesy Overture Center
At this point, I feel like a broken record. When I started writing musical reviews for the Daily Cardinal, I thought I was going to have a wonderful time, writing uncontroversial reviews and love everything I went to see. But this is, unfortunately, not the case.
I’m just holding out for “Hamilton” at this point.
As it turns out, like, everything, ever, is written by white men. And even the musicals you think are going to be great and funny and satirical are disappointingly ancient in their worldview. Let me just explain why the “Book of Mormon” is problematic and western-centric and maybe a little misogynistic, much to my despair.
If we consider the plot for a moment, what really happens in this musical? Two white male protagonists, constantly being emasculated for the sake of “comedy,” (because nothing is funnier than a man acting like his inferior counterpart, a woman) leave the utopic United States and go to “primitive”, “Third World”, “inferior” Uganda and impart all of their Western wisdom and superior intellect on the constantly belittled Ugandans. Like, all of the jokes are at the expense of an underprivileged or minority group. I just don’t care what the white privileged writers think of Ugandans, gay people or Mormons for that matter.
It’s a matter of punching down versus punching up. If a pair of college-aged Ugandan dudes got together and wrote a musical about entitled Americans and their backward logic about circumcision versus female circumcision and joked about all the twisted hierarchies in our flawed society, I’d be so cool with it. Because based on our history with Uganda (you know, capturing African people and selling them, forcing them into slavery, etc), I’d say that we deserve and aren’t going to suffer from some retribution.
White dudes are the ones who can stand to be knocked down a peg, not those who are already suffering.
It’s not cool to make fun of black people in the United States because we generally accept that we have historically not been great to their ancestors and have continuing systems of oppression to this day, embedded into the very fabric of our society. So why, then, would it be acceptable to make fun of black people outside of the United States?
Based on the Global Slavery Index, the country of Uganda had an estimated 304,000 people living in modern slavery in 2018. We don’t get to negate history and pretend that corruption and crime in Uganda have nothing to do with our racist ancestors’ behavior not that long ago.
I’m tired of writing this.
I wrote a similarly scathing review of “The King and I” for some of the very same reasons. Western civilization doesn’t have it all figured out; other countries’ norms may look very different than ours, but that doesn’t make them worse.
It’s not cute or funny to portray citizens of other countries as dumb or goofy because their culture differs from what we’re wrongfully portraying as the norm.
It’s also not okay to generalize a culture as being “primitive” or “savage” based on practices that you know nothing about. It’s obvious that the writers of “Book of Mormon” know next to nothing about female circumcision. It’s a cultural custom that is far more complex and nuanced than these writers clearly understood, as their critique was limited to “All the young girls here get circumcised! Their clits get cut right off!” Great punchline, guys; I love how it demonstrates such a complete lack of cultural sensitivity and understanding.
One of the most upsetting parts of this borderline racist production running in 2019 is that these are the parts that incredible black performers are offered. The absolute unquestionable star of the show (in terms of talent) was Alyah Chanelle Scott, playing Nabulungi.
It breaks my heart that this phenomenal talent with an unbelievable voice is having to play this part — an African woman whose entire storyline is that she dreams of leaving her country and is completely in awe and amazed by the incredible Mormon missionaries. She’s portrayed as totally naive and used as a punchline throughout the entire show as she struggles to understand Mormonism and American culture.
The two protagonists — Elder Price and Elder Cunningham — were played by Liam Tobin and Jordan Matthew Brown. These characters were supposed to be funny essentially because they didn’t fit into the traditional role of men in Western culture. Audience members laughed as the pair cuddled in bed together, and when Elder Price walked onto the stage with a pink suitcase. This is another example of punching down within this musical; it’s supposed to be funny to see men acting feminine (because that’s wrong).
This musical was funny if you can look past the cultural insensitivity, racism and misogyny. I’m tired of writing the same old thing, but I just can’t not critique out the old, boring and privileged perspective of the white dudes who wrote this musical.
I just pray that “The Spongebob Musical” doesn’t disappoint me in the same way.
Emma Hellmer is the theatre columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter