Broadway, The Book of Mormon, and Blackness

Christopher Jones

(cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor)

Over at Religion Dispatches, Jared Farmer, professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of the excellent On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, reviews the multiple Tony Award-winning broadway play, The Book of Mormon.

By all accounts, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's satirical look at Mormon missionaries in Africa is funny. With very few exceptions, everyone I've talked to that has seen it---including a number of believing Latter-day Saints---has praised both its humor and its ultimately touching (if somewhat condescending) message about religion: Religion (especially the brand of religion preached by Mormons) is naive, silly, and based on absurd beliefs and unprovable truth claims, but that belief can ultimately motivate adherents to do good, help others, and improve the world.

Farmer largely agrees with this assessment. "The Book of Mormon is fun, and occasionally uproarious," he writes. "If the giddy laughter I heard at the sold-out show on Easter Sunday is any indication, theatergoers love it." He then goes on to offer a more complete critique of the play than I'd previously seen, noting the ways in which Parker and Stone's portrayal of Mormon missionaries is sometimes on target ("Pairs of missionaries (“companions”) do often resent each other; sexual tension, homophobia, homesickness, and boredom strain the relationships of these co-workers/roommates. Many missionaries dislike their geographic assignments. Even as they compete against each other for baptisms in the field, missionaries often struggle to convert a single person in two years of service.") and other times not even close ("Pairs of missionaries are never equals; there is always a “senior companion” and a “junior companion.” The various missionaries (men and women) in an area are supervised by one (male) “mission president” and his wife, not by a three-person bishopric. ... The missionary program certainly no longer encourages Latter-day Saints to gather in Salt Lake City."), and the concludes by suggesting that "Most egregiously, the play mischaracterizes Mormon theology." This is tricky territory, as Mormonism has no systematic theology, and some of Farmer's points seem more credible to me than others. I think he's right that "Unlike evangelical missionaries who want to save you from going to hell, LDS missionaries want to help you reach your potential in heaven. Mormon eschatology is radically egalitarian, and very American: everyone gets a second chance, everyone wins," but his suggestion that "for Joseph Smith and his followers, the existence of the translated text—proof of Smith’s prophetic powers—was more important than its contents" is open to debate. Farmer's argument echoes that of a former generation of historians, but much new research on early Mormonism suggests exactly the opposite; that early Mormons read the book's contents with care and that the Book of Mormon's teachings shaped early Mormon theology in ways previously ignored.

Couched in between Farmer's analysis and critique of the Book of Mormon musical, though, is something that has been repeatedly mentioned in passing by numerous friends but never fully teased out---a seemingly significant critique of the Broadway hit that those too focused on the delightful ways in which the South Park creators mock Mormons have opted to either ignore or quickly dismiss. I speak of the show's racial overtones. Farmer summarizes the salient points:
The plot twists at the end raise questions about the racial politics of the show. Only a threat of American violence saves the villagers from the tyranny of the local warlord. Only the ingenuity of the white men provides Africans a useful religion. The dewy-eyed boys from Utah share the genius of Joseph Smith: the Yankee spirit of invention. The musical’s happy ending, complete with black missionaries in neo-Mormon garb, contains a strong note of American chauvinism.
And then offers his most stinging critique of the musical:
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. It wants to be transgressive and conventional, blasphemous and saccharine. This combination is not impossible, but incredibly difficult to achieve. Parker, Stone, and Lopez don’t pull it off.
If nothing else, Farmer's critique on this point raises important questions about the intersections of religious and racial representation and satire, and that, I think, is a conversation worth having.


Edward J. Blum said…
read this piece yesterday at Religion Dispatches and thought it was just fantastic, especially Farmer's take on puppetry. Really good analysis and it reminds me of Daphne Brooks's amazing work in _Bodies of Dissent_ on 19th century African American performances of body, race, and nation.
Jon said…
An objection to Farmer's observation that "[p]airs of missionaries are never equals; there is always a 'senior companion' and a 'junior companion.'"

Based on my experience in the mission field, I can say that missionaries do serve as equals in some cases, e.g., a zone may be led by two zone leaders who are companions or two missionaries with comparable experience are made co-equal companions by the mission president.

Popular Posts