I took my girlfriend to see the Book of Mormon in London’s West End. All the reviews I had come across delighted in it, ‘hilarious,’ ‘side-splitting’, ‘incredibly funny’. So I was quite excited and proud to have managed to get hold of a couple of good seats for an apparently reasonable price. I expected this to be a fantastic experience.
Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of Southpark, the principle is of two young Mormons who go to Uganda to spread the word of the Latter Day Saints, to what is intended to be hilarious effect.
When it came to the interval I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable. But not because I’d been laughing so hard my sides had split. I turned to my girlfriend and said with a pained expression, ‘is this really racist?’ It was a question because I seemed to be the only person in the theatre who hadn’t laughed when the doctor cried out, ‘I’ve got maggots in my scrotum.’ From what I could tell from the smiling white faces around me I was the only person that seemed to have a problem with any of this.
She turned to me and in answer to my question nodded, ‘I think it might be.’
What was so baffling was we couldn’t quite figure out how everyone was missing that this hit musical, lauded and applauded around the world, was deeply and integrally racist. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it either. Beyond a deep distressing discomfort, I couldn’t at that point have told you why.
We considered leaving, but, I had paid too much for the tickets, and maybe it would get better. So, we sat through the second half, uncomfortably applauded at the end, and went home to open and drink several bottles of wine.
Musically it was good, it was choreographed well, the actors were undeniably talented, and some of the jokes did tickle me. The opening scene was very well done as the young Mormons sang an irritatingly catchy hello song. In fact most of the parts that made a mockery of Mormonism I found pretty funny.
I will start with the obvious problems. It is a crude musical. This in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. I enjoy a good penis joke as much as the next man. However, there are lines that you probably shouldn’t cross which they crossed with unfounded confidence whenever any of the black characters came on stage.
How funny is it that AIDs is endemic in areas of Africa? How funny is poverty? How funny is the supposition that all Africans are stupid and ill-educated? How funny is forced female circumcision?
These are the some of the main jokes of The Book of Mormon. You don’t have to be black or thin skinned to find this offensive.
This ill thought through jokery though wasn’t even the real problem. If it was I could have walked away, bad taste in my mouth, but probably not needed to get hopelessly drunk in a vain hope that some of the edge would be blunted.
I finally managed to figure it out when I thought, ‘what would famous writer and essayist Chinua Achebe have to say about it?’
The African characters are two dimensional. They all have AIDs, one of them goes around trying to rape babies because he believes that this will cure his AIDs. The doctor is an idiot with a maggot infested scrotum. The village chief is perhaps the most real character, but he is helpless, forlorn and has given up entirely. The chief’s daughter is doe-eyed and simple.
They are impoverished. The stage set was like something out of a 1940s film. Mud huts, dirt and a few off cast bits of metal with rusting western brands.
These are a people in desperate need of saving. They are simple, they are savage, they are uncultured and ill-educated.
This is the setting for the musical. And in swoops the white man with his bible to save them all from the marauding idiot war-lord who seems to want to circumcise all the women for no apparent reason.
At one point the writers even make the joke that all Africa is the same. This was at least recognisably a joke on the ignorance of the Mormons, but they have done too much damage to let that slide.
What Chinua Achebe might have said is that it is unacceptable to use Africa, a continent with a vast array of cultures, with hundreds of languages, as a simple back drop for the white man’s story. It is unacceptable to homogenise and dehumanise the African peoples.
In his essay, ‘Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, he takes issue with exactly this, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a lot less obviously racist than The Book of Mormon.
Africa is a mere setting, the characters are a two dimensional backdrop of noble savages desperately in need of saving by the white man. This is the insidious colonial plotline of both Heart of Darkness, and The Book of Mormon.
In the polemic text, Things Fall Apart, Achebe works hard to engender some understanding in his reader of the depth and complexity of Igbo culture. In Arrow of God, there is a moment where the main character speaks to another African, from a different part of Africa, the only common language they share is English, but he is ashamed to talk because he believes the white men nearby will assume they do not have languages of their own. The Book of Mormon tears these ideals down, and laughs at the wreckage.
Anything that removes the cultural integrity of Africa is an unacceptable breach of moral ethics. The white man has done enough harm, we should not be compounding this thoughtless colonial damage with stupid jokes at the expense of an entire continent. At the expense of an array of complex societies, and at the expense of an entire race of people.
For the Book of Mormon to be the popular hit that it has become, for the entirely white audience to chuckle away, apparently not realising the harm of this musical, leaves me with a feeling of anguish. What was perhaps meant to be a light hearted ribbing of Mormonism is a harmful and degrading piece of theatre, subconsciously reinforcing outdated ideas of colonial superiority.
For anyone who wishes to disagree with me, I ask you to go and read, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, followed by Chinua Achebe’s essay, ‘Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’. If you still don’t get it read Caryl Philips essay, ‘Was Joseph Conrad really a racist?’ Then finish off your education with Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart. If once you have read all these you still wish to disagree, then I am open to meaningful debate.