“The Book of Mormon” musical is not offensive for its portrayal of Mormons. It’s offensive because of its portrayal of black people.
Actually, “The Book of Mormon” musical is quite fair to Mormons, even while jabbing our religious imperialism, cultural naivete, self-righteous judgmentalism, insistent psychological denials, historical foibles and, of course, our indefatigable courtesy. These barbs are well-earned by my people.
Unfortunately, as the audience is immersed in the genuine pleasure of insightful and incisive cultural satire about Mormons, the performance simultaneously deteriorates into a minstrel show.
Africa and Africans are used as props to set the stage for a Mormon satire, and the complexities of African problems are not only disregarded — AIDS, rape, genital mutilation and violence are exploited for vulgar punchlines.
The vulgarity is not the problem. Mine is not a prudish impulse. For sexually themed jokes, obviously Mormons provide rich material on their own, and the show offers hilarious moments about gay missionaries and the naive negotiations of sexually deprived virgins.
But most of the sexual references rely on the hyper-sexualization of black bodies. By the end of the show, the Africans are springing about the stage flailing giant phalluses for masturbation, penetration and oral pleasure of their neighbors. These overtly sexual displays coincide with a frenzy of diarrhea re-enactments lacking any human dignity.
The whole second half of the show relies on the premise that the simple-minded Africans will readily believe any farcical tale and that relating to African problems will require extravagant sexualization.
As the Mormon characters evolve from stereotype to complexity, the Africans devolve into not just stereotype, but into the debasing racist stereotypes of minstrel shows.
Mocking the cultural eccentricities of Mormons is fine fun, especially in Salt Lake City. But “The Book of Mormon” musical gravely misrepresents Africa and Africans in the service of that humor, and that exploitation is inexcusable racism.
Ann Michelle Van Tassell