Monday, December 31, 2012

The Book of Mormon: A Review

Within five minutes you can tell why The Book of Mormon is so popular. The story, the music, the cast are all awesome. It finds pathos and humor in surprising places, namely among the struggles of Mormon missionaries to reconcile faith and religious identity. In the end, you'll never look at those gentlemen in crisp white shirts and earnest smiles the same way again. Its a shame that the play, which takes place in Uganda, doesn't give the natives the same courtesy.

One of the best things about South Park is how well it humanizes its most outrageous characters. Cartman could say the most objectionable thing imaginable about someone, but you knew where he was coming from. He's a kid who wants to be loved and the reason is clear whenever the show features his mother. He becomes a rounder (sorry) character because you see what makes him vulnerable and what he loves. Then he becomes more than just a Dbag kid.

The Book of Mormon is especially adept at providing such rounding to the Mormons in the play. That's laudable because it would have been really easy to make a play bashing Mormonism and making it all sound like a bad joke. Nobody's really going to stand up to defend Mormons and they represent a bit of an easy target. But it's clear from the beginning of the musical, when the protagonists first meet up, that the writers have done their homework into the rituals and modes of thought that Mormons have adopted. Of course nothing can capture the total experience of all Mormons, but the opening number, Hello, does a brilliant job of giving us insight into how important the concept of Mission is to Mormons. They've got a story they want to tell and they deploy a lot of resources to spreading it. Plus its catchy as hell, so you find yourself repeating it. It instantly humanizes them.

The introductory song of the Ugandans, Hasa Diga Eebowai however, has a different effect. Their song is a sorrow song, but instead of praising God or begging for his mercy, the number is an indictment of God's cruelty. That's interesting because it goes against the "spiritual negro" trope that so often comes up when Black/White binaries are presented in the culture. If Black people ain't got nothing else, they're supposed to be able to pray to the Lord above. Instead, they literally tell God to go fcuk hisself.

And all of that would be fine if the Uganda in the House of Mormon were really a reflection of what life is actually like in Uganda. The Africans sing that 80% of them have AIDS, but even in at the height of the AIDS crisis in Uganda only 15% of the population was infected. The joke is hyperbolic of course, but we have to also realize that American understandings of Africa are pretty much limited to nature shows and Save the Children ads. In the song we learn that Ugandans tell God to suck it because they have nothing except poverty, despair, rape, and genital mutilation. And of course there is truth in all of these troubling things, but reducing the experience of any group of people to such a limited narrative runs counter to the empathetic consideration they offer the Mormons. Instead the Ugandans are a helpless, miserable people, without history or context beyond their suffering.

Later when the protagonist tries to convert a ruthless warlord by singing an awesome (and silly) song, I Believe, about his faith, jittery Africans with machine guns wait to deliver the number's ultimate punchline: sexual violence. Again, although the Mormons' belief system is continually tweaked and made fun of, there's a naive earnestness to it that makes you want to believe right along with them. The Africans are offered no such nuance.

One of the strengths of Trey Parker and Matt Stone is their ability to hold up a mirror to the white American psyche and explore its biases and blindspots. Although the Mormons in the play are explicitly what its about, they are an effective vehicle to getting us to think more about the role religion and belief play in our lives, no matter who we pray to (or don't). And its funny as hell. Those things alone make the play worthwhile and highly recommended.

However, much of the show's humor flows from a White gaze that has little use for the details of Uganda or its people. The moral of the play seems to indicate that all people, no matter their nationality or religion, in the end just want to hear a story that gives them hope and makes it alright to be who they are. I can work with that moral, but it's just too bad that the Ugandan people in the Book of Mormon never become more than empty vessels that need spiritual filling.

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