I felt sucker-punched by The Book of Mormon. I was expecting a clever if irreverent exploration of religion; I got that, but I had to choke it down with a big bucket of humor at the expense of blacks on stage and in the audience.
I went in without reading any reviews, but with a general sense that though offensive in that beloved South Park way, it was a very good show.
A huge part of the ‘humor’ comes from the encounter between white American missionaries and villagers in rural Uganda. As the musical progresses, it escalates from poking fun at naive American perceptions of Africans (starting with cluelessness about Uganda’s location) to making joke after joke largely at the expense of the Ugandans, fully capitalizing on the worst stereotypes of sub-Sarharan Africa.
Here’s a quick list:
- In general, the villagers are portrayed as poor, naive, backwards, crass, and hypersexualized.
- All of the women in the village have suffered from or are in danger of clitoridectomies.
- The smart and resourceful female lead, Nabulungi, uses a typewriter to ‘send texts’.
- Nabulungi is called: ‘Namba Jamba’, ‘Jon Bon Jovi’, ‘Neosporin’, ‘Necrophilia’ and probably a dozen other demeaning names by the male lead.
- The village is terrorized by a warlord named “Butt Fucking Naked” (who is the source of sodomy-related jokes even after the play ends, when the cast asks the audience for donations to a Broadway AIDS foundation. And rape is treated both as character development and a punchline.)
- A man’s claim to rape babies to cure his AIDS is also repeatedly played for laughs.
- Another recurring joke: “There are maggots in my scrotum!” “You should see the doctor!” “I *am* the doctor!”
I studied the crowd after the performance. Some folks were hurrying to beat the exodus from the parking structure, but many small groups were laughing as they recounted different scenes. But not a single black audience member was smiling. Most looked shell-shocked.
There was potential in this play. There was a level of depth and complexity that went into the portrayal of the white Mormon missionary characters and a sophistication to the humorous critique of Mormonism and American proselytizing that didn’t make it to the other half of the cast. The Ugandans were played for cheap laughs, and these jokes could’ve been written by just about any racist and homophobic 12-year-old.
But what was most disappointing was hearing everyone around us laughing heartily at, and not with, the African characters. Parker and Stone know their audience well. This is the sad and low baseline for humor in America.