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Stage is set for a tweaked ‘Book of Mormon’
The Tony-winning “Book of Mormon” musical will return to the Broadway stage next month but with a script that’s a tad more racially, if not religiously, sensitive.
The blockbuster production — still raunchy and rude yet oddly reverential — will “sharpen the satire of Mormonism,” The New York Times reports, and “give the Ugandan villagers more agency.”
“A gag in which the villager Nabulungi [the female lead] tries to send a text using a typewriter is gone; now she has an iPad, and the joke is no longer about her lack of sophistication, but about the unreliability of social media,” The Times writes. “Also: Toward the end of the show, it is Nabulungi, not a white missionary, who scares away a warlord.”
In this awakened era of Black Lives Matter, the musical drew fire from outsiders and insiders (including the actors themselves) for its depictions of Africans.
In a Religion Dispatches article last month, Jake Johnson, a musicology professor at Oklahoma City University and author of “Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America,” discusses how the bawdy but beloved musical has gone from “America’s Broadway darling to America’s latest problem” in the 10-plus years since it premiered.
“Some sincere tenets of the show’s Mormon missionaries often sound hilariously inflated to an outsider, while the war-torn and corrupt Uganda where they’re proselytizing remains flat, one-note and unimaginative,” Johnson says. “To write out the show’s insensitive portrayals of, well, everyone is in some ways to ask for a different show entirely.”
Don’t expect the changes to end the merciless mocking of Latter-day Saints and their beliefs. They are the soul of the show.
Of course, “The Book of Mormon” is hardly alone at the rewrite desk. The Times notes that the second act of the megahit “Hamilton” now kicks off with Thomas Jefferson singing “What’d I Miss?” while a dancer playing Sally Hemings, the Black slave who bore him multiple children, turns her back on him.
A call for anti-racism classes at church
Latter-day Saint law professor Sam Brunson sees a need for teaching a new kind of gospel essential — anti-racism.
For one piece of evidence, he points to a recent Salt Lake Tribune story, which reported that a Utah school district (with an overwhelmingly Latter-day Saint population) came under fire from federal investigators for “serious and widespread” racial harassment in its schools.
“We should devote a church curriculum to battling racism in ourselves, our church community, and the larger community around us,” Brunson writes in a recent By Common Consent blog post. “That curriculum should be taught either in Sunday school or in our [male] priesthood and [women’s] Relief Society classes” as well as to teens and even younger children.
The lessons, he says, could include scriptural and prophetic denunciations of racism. Church President Russell M. Nelson, for instance, has challenged Latter-day Saints to root out racism within the faith and “lead out” against prejudice across the globe.
Brunson, who teaches law at Loyola University in Chicago, argues the curriculum should openly address the church’s own racist past, including the now-discarded priesthood/temple ban on Black men and women, and “apologize” for it.
“Apologizing doesn’t somehow make it weak,” he says. “But this idea of leaving our past behind us isn’t working; it’s not sending a message to members.”
Earlier this year, civil rights attorney Carolyn Homer sketched out a lesson plan in a By Common Consent post to help Latter-day Saints learn how to combat the “pernicious and pervasive evil” of racism.
“We desperately need to send members this message: Racism is unacceptable,” Brunson concludes. “... Repenting of our racism helps to heal ourselves and our communities and is a critical step toward creating Zion.”
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