This week I finally saw the mega-hit show Book of Mormon. I knew that the musical was set in Africa. But my friends assured me that it “was equally offensive to everyone”. I don’t think so. Why does it matter? It’s only a show. It matters because the same stereotypes that we accept in the theater endanger black men on the street.
As a public service, I offer below the questions I ask myself to measure offensiveness.
1. Are the targets equal?
The Church of Latter Day Saints, 95% white, has assets between 30 and 40 billion dollars, according to reporting by Time Magazine and Reuters. Per Wikipedia, the estimated 2013 GDP of Uganda was 23 billion. Insofar as money is power, it is less offensive to poke fun at rich people than at poor people.
2. Are negative historical stereotypes equally emphasized?
The musical reinforces the negative stereotypes of blacks as ignorant, violent and hypersexual while glancing over the negative stereotype of Mormons as polygamous.
In the airport scene, there are not an unusual number of siblings seeing off the missionaries. The authors refer to the stereotype of the Mormons as polygamous by putting long fake penises on the Africans, in a play within the play, rather than on the Mormons.
3. How far do the authors deviate from reality to make the joke?
By and large, the recitation of the history of the Mormons is factual, funny because it is out of context. Even the line “I am Christ” earned a big laugh because of the campy delivery. The missionaries are portrayed as zealous and naïve, not stupid. Much of the white humor is mild “odd couple” gags, between Elders Price and Cunningham.
By contrast, the Ugandan village is unrecognizable as modern Africa. The female lead “texts” using a typewriter, although according to Wikipedia, Uganda ranks 68th among nations in terms of cell phones in use. The character who loudly proclaims and repeats that he has maggots in his scrotum is the doctor. Even after graduate school, a black person is an idiot.
4. Who carries the obscene humor?
A black character is called “General Butt-Fucking Naked” (only “General” in the Playbill) There is no comparably named white character. There is no white person with an infection in an indelicate area.
If it’s vulgar, it comes from the blacks: the song with which they greet the missionaries or Elder Price’s preposterous comeuppance.
5. Whose Happy Ending is it?
The Africans are portrayed as overjoyed that the missionaries are going to stay.