By Hassan Malik
The Book of Mormon opened last month having come to London on the back of nine Tony awards and rapturous New York reviews. Created by the team behind the successful South Park TV series, it features songs written by the composer from the irreverent Muppet musical Avenue Q.
It is marketed as a satire on the Mormon religion, which there is plenty of material about in the show. However, this is not the only target.
Following the initial opening scene in which the main characters, two Mormon ‘Elders’ are assigned missionary duties to Africa, it becomes clear that the continent is going be as much a focus, and offensively so.
The scene changes from an airport in Salt Lake City where the two main characters are seen off by a black woman singing, intended to lampoon the Lion King musical, and their perceptions of Africa.
Unfortunately, when the scene changes to Africa, we are subjected to a typically Western portrayal of an African village; in a scorched earth setting, militias steal the suitcases of the new arrivals at gunpoint and a musical number to introduce the state of the village features lyrics about female genital mutilation, child rape and AIDS. The joke here is that the village is so angry with God that the missionary Mormons will have their work cut out converting them. The song nods to The Lion King, although its not even clear why a children’s cartoon about animals is deemed a necessary target of such satire.
I sat uncomfortably with the majority white audience, which laughed along to subjects that do not deserve satirical treatment. Whilst around half of the cast make up the African village, this was not reflected in the ethnic make up of the audience watching.
Reviewers have alluded to the offence in the show, but The Observer, for example, names this musical number as its highlight.
Later the audience laughed at the line ‘I’m off to rape a baby’ and also at Nabalungi, the female lead, who comes back from a market with a typewriter, exclaiming that she can now text all her friends. In doing this, the stereotypical treatment of Africa felt like something out of the pages of a colonial encyclopaedia.
In reality, mobile phones have created trade and jobs for people across Africa’s social strata. It is ironic that the majority of the show is set in Uganda, and has as its villain a warlord, echoing the ‘Kony 2012′ campaign that went viral on social media last year. It called for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army. The campaign was launched following the deployment of some US troops to Uganda, just after significant oil reserves were discovered in Uganda. The campaign was criticised by Ugandan activists, particularly for its explicit call for US military intervention in Africa.
Undoubtedly The Book of Mormon has some clever moments, with polished dance routines, some of the musical numbers dazzle at times.
It throws a sop to the African characters at the end, where one of the ‘converted’ congregation articulates the relation between scripture and metaphor which all religions use to stay relevant. But even here, the laugh is in surprise that one of the villagers would have such an insight.
The treatment of the African characters as props to a religious satire illustrates the level to which uninformed stereotypes pervade even today, and how criticism of religion, however constructive, satirical or well intentioned, has lulled an otherwise progressive audience into passivity on the issue of racism. It is as if it is considered a worthy sacrifice to the critique of religion. Something similar occurs in the current debates about Muslims, where criticism of followers of an organised religion sees easy slippage into an insidious, ‘dinner-party acceptable’ form of racism.
It also sadly reflects the poor state of the arts, where even in one of the most celebrated musicals of the moment, the black community can only best hope to play a prop.
The slick marketing, including a gushing #lovemormon hashtag on twitter, have served to sell this show out until next year. It appears the show has many converts but attracts little criticism for its obvious flaws, much like the religious excess it aims to satirise.