That title is the closest I’ll ever get to appearing on Broadway, so humor me. I’ve been coming to New York City for years and years, but somehow I’ve never seen a show. I’ve seen Broadway shows in North Carolina and Philadelphia, but had always heard that it’s just not the same as seeing them on the Great White Way. My mother—living saint that she is—decided that it’s time we did something about it.
On Tuesday, my first full day in the city—I spent approximately three hours collecting obituaries. It was, as one might expect, a total bummer. As much as I love studying HIV/AIDS, it does take a toll. It really did help knowing that I wasn’t going to just go back to my hotel and brood. No, I was going to spend the night laughing my ass off at “The Book of Mormon.”
I made a choice not to do my homework in preparation for this show. The premise of the show makes me uncomfortable, but I’d heard it was the funniest show on Broadway, and it’s passed the sniff test of several critical thinkers that I have the privilege of calling my friends. I wanted to see how the show hit me, and there’s really only one way to make that happen.
So, the following is my personal opinion of and meditation on the show. It’s been twenty four hours. There’s nothing I can possibly say about the show that’s more profound than what’s already been written by other people. Still.
Let’s get one thing out of the way now: this show is really beautifully written and performed. I am in awe of the men and women I saw on that stage, and have nothing but respect for each and every one of them. Their art needs to be considered a thing in itself, and there is no need for meditation there. This is hands-down one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and if I had the time, money, and social graces to take every member of the cast out to lunch, I totally would. They put on one a hell of a show.
“The Book of Mormon” is also a show that I can 100% understand my Mormon friends despising. That having been said, the structure of the show is such that any religion that promotes proselytizing could fit squarely in its crosshairs. Mormonism drew the short straw, but the abuse it takes is not nearly as heinous as I’d anticipated. The play mocks details of the faith, but ultimately looks beyond them to highlight all that is good about having faith. It’s a show that, in a hilariously roundabout way, demonstrates that anything is possible when you tap into a higher power, even if that higher power is a hobbit. It does, however, accomplish that at the expense of a major religion, and I appreciate that many a Mormon would find this play hurtful.
My other major concern going into the show was the fact that two white guys sat down and wrote a musical set in Uganda. I was expecting a lot of cheap-shot racial humor, and to a certain extent I got it. The African characters in this play are a bit two dimensional, and a huge portion of the plot is dependent upon their naiveté and lemming-like willingness to adopt (a creatively edited version of) Mormonism. However, I came away from the show feeling okay about the way people of color are represented, because—no spoilers—the writing is designed to make the audience “realize” the complexity of the African characters right alongside our two white protagonists. This enables a critique of neoliberal racism and global capitalism that might not otherwise translate to a broad audience.
All of this is to say that I agree with Sayantani DasGupta, who wrote in “The Feminist Wire” that “The Book of Mormon,” for being outrageous and frequently offensive, is doing important—and brilliantly subtle—cultural work. She writes that:
Ultimately, the subversive strength of the play is this: it is a powerful, and (if ticket sales are anything to go by) effective example of white people talking to white people about anti-racist social justice. By this I don’t mean the musical pulls any punches, or talks about anti-racism in a way that ‘doesn’t offend’ white people. Rather, I believe that it engages in a sort of neo-liberal self-critique that can only come from a position of ‘insider.’
The risk with a musical like this, of course, is that not every audience member is going to be able to see—for example—that the discussion of cliterodectomy is brilliantly executed. DasGupta mentions this too: in the midst of cheap laughs, we see an outright refusal to refer to the practice as “mutilation,” African men advocating for women’s sexual autonomy, and a strong challenge to the East/West universalist/particularist binaries of 21st century feminist thought. That said, the average audience member is just going to be laughing because… you know… clitoris. But hasn’t that always been true about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s comedy? (Side note: if you haven’t seen 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, get thee to thy Netflix. It’s mind-blowing.)
Like South Park, I suspect that “The Book of Mormon” has and will to continue to fly over the heads of many people, and to a certain extent I can understand the point of view that that risk associated with this brand of humor outweighs its rewards. But I believe in taking risks, and I believe that with every show “The Book of Mormon” is engaging at least a few privileged young people who love volunteer tourism, don’t believe ours is an imperialist country, and quiver at the thought of “anti-racist social justice.” These folks might not realize they’re laughing at themselves, but they are. This show may only open their minds for a couple of hours, but that’s something.
Or maybe I’m full of it. I don’t know. Fact is, I love and support musical theater, and I would have an exceedingly hard time tearing down a show that’s so expertly constructed and performed. It’s also hard to dump on a play that made me laugh out loud about AIDS after a day spent reading obituaries. Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I honestly don’t think so.
So yes, “The Book of Mormon” is definitely not for the easily offended, and only for the most lighthearted of LDS folks (like, maybe 1% of you), but it is a wonderful show. You should chop off an arm and a leg (it’s that expensive) and go see it, if only to jump onto my comments page and tell me how wrong I am, and how much you miss the aforementioned limbs.
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.