Op-ed: Thanks, Book of Mormon musical, for provoking my thoughts

First Published      Last Updated Aug 08 2015 07:30 am

The Broadway tour of The Book of Mormon musical is currently playing at the Capitol Theatre. I have been anticipating the arrival of the production since the Broadway debut in 2011. I love theatrical productions, and when I saw Andrew Rannells perform "I believe" at the 65th Tony Awards, I was shocked and intrigued at the same time.

Over the years I have heard the musical described at irreverent, offensive, anti-Mormon, anti-religion, racist, brilliant and hilarious. With all of those enthusiastic endorsements either for or against the play I knew I had to see it when it came to Salt Lake. I considered seeing it last summer while on holiday in New York City, but I thought, "No, this is a show I should see at home!" I purchased tickets and saw the show with a non-Mormon friend and a couple of progressive Mormon friends, all of whom have good senses of humor but also have keen analytical skills. Being entertained while also critically consuming the show was the goal.

"I believe, that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people." There it was. The line I had been anticipating my emotional reaction to had finally arrived in the second act. The priesthood and temple ban is a controversial topic in the LDS community; it has been and continues to be a painful topic for me. Surprisingly when the line was sung, I laughed with everyone else.

The idea is so ludicrous that it is laughable. It exemplifies one of the themes that clearly emerged. Myth making. Myth making is not unique to Mormonism or organized religion, it exists globally. We create myths and metaphors that help us make meaning of our environment and experiences. Sometimes those myths are problematic and sometimes they promote psychological well-being. One myth can be helpful for some and painful for others. I think the problem arises when we force or project our myths onto others; just because it is helpful for me does not mean it will be helpful for someone else. Of course, this is exactly what takes place when the missionaries teach the Ugandan people about the Book of Mormon.

The myth making and projection is evidence of the over-arching message of the play. I have encountered critiques that say the message of the play is anti-Mormon or anti-religion. However, to me the message was about the goal and impact of colonization. Religion is just a vehicle for imperialism, and Mormonism is just microcosm of organized religion.

I was anticipating the racist tropes, and they came in abundance. The African characters filled several stereotypes, including living in huts and being completely technologically illiterate (as portrayed through one character thinking a typewriter was a texting device). The missionaries are the quintessential stereotypes of white Mormon men raised in Utah. Eager, clean cut, nerdy, and superior.

While offensive, it was necessary to portray those stereotypes in order to create an impact that is thought provoking and lasting. At the beginning of the play, the Ugandans are an inferior people — uneducated, unhappy, violent and living in squalor. The white missionaries are smart, attractive, self-centered, and happy. By the end the Ugandans are "better." They have been colonized and now have a mindset that will uphold white-supremacy (which is exactly where racism wants people of color to be mentally). And the missionaries? Well, they leave with stories of white-saviorism (as exemplified through the song "I am Africa") and a little "jungle fever."

Colonization delivered through organized religion is clearly exemplified in the Book of Mormon musical. The production is irreverent. It is also hilarious. But more importantly it left me with some very important things to think about. What is the impact of colonization in the world, and what is the impact of it in my own life? How do I balance my beliefs while working to decolonize my mind?

My takeaway: Thanks, Book of Mormon musical, for some important things to think about and discuss in the future.

Mica McGriggs is a Ph.D. candidate in Counseling Psychology at Brigham Young University and a lifelong member of the LDS Church.