The Book of Mormon: out of the comfort zone

Elder Kevin and the General

The musical by the creators of South Park runs and runs because of its biting humour and its evisceration of the White Saviour complex that is prevalent amongst evangelical religions. And yet …

I’m a big South Park fan – so the news that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were doing a musical got me nervous. Not because of any misgivings about these particular two, but because of the high disappointment rate of commercially lucrative West End and Broadway productions. When the number one selling point is a big name – either well-known writers or a well-know story it’s based on – all to often the actual musical fails to live up to the hype. However, The Book of Mormon has run and run and run so we can safely assume it’s been doing something right.

First, a recap of South Park Lore. There are two strands of South Park that heavily feed into a live-action stage musical. The first obvious source is the episode All About Mormons, which was a bit of a dilemma for Parker and Stone when they first wrote it. They’d already been brutal about most other religions, but the difficulty with Mormonism is that all the Mormons they knew in real life were such nice people – but the story they believe in is just dumb. The boat that carried two of each of the 1.2 million species on earth for a month is positively believable compared to the story of Joseph Smith. The other less obvious source are the episodes with Starvin’ Marvin. This is a favourite example of the South Park haters who love to accuse the programme of punching down. “You’re making fun of black people in Africa”, they claim. No, for anyone who watches his, it’s clear that the real target are the missionaries who don’t care in the slightest about saving lives as long some of them right read their Bibles.

South Park fans will quickly recognise both themes here. Elder Kevin Price is the star pupil of a Missionary Training Centre, learning how to tell people the good news of the Church of Latter-Day Saints far better than any of his peers. Underneath, however, Kevin is a shallow character, who assumes that being top of the class will earn him a cushy mission in Florida, preferably near Disneyland. Unluckily for Kevin, the Mormon bigwigs thinks he’s such a great Mormon he’ll be perfect for Uganda, where, for some reason, the people seem more concerned about not being killed by local militias. And worse: insecure, needy and generally annoying Arnold (who worships Kevin as much as the Lord God himself) has been partnered with Kevin in the hope he’ll make a proper Mormon of him.

An easy way to take offence to the musical is to interpret the black people in Uganda as either savages (such as the main villain General Butt Fucking Naked), or backwards and gullible. After all, Arnold succeeds in gaining converts where all others have failed; he’s so inept at remember the Mormon story and making things up as he goes along, which the locals all love. However, the point that is easily missed is that whilst the white Mormons might see the local Ugandans as buffoons, the locals think exactly the same in reverse. Daughter of tribal leader Nabulungi sees Salt Lake City as her idyllic escape from her hardships; most of the villagers, however, are bored and see this as a laugh. I’ve seen enough of Parker and Stone’s writing to have no doubt that it is the Mormons who are meant to be the butt of the joke here.

And yet … there was something about the performance that made me feel queasy watching it. It’s infuriating difficult to put my finger on what it is, but I felt a bit uncomfortable being an a audience of mostly white people and entirely first world laughing away at a play which does not beat about the bush as to what’s going on around this village: female genital mutilation, endemic HIV infections, and some appalling misinformation on how to avoid AIDS. I don’t believe for a second Parker and Stone intended the joke to be that FGM and AIDS in Africa is funny – but I could understand that other people might not see it that way. It just seems a little callous to blithely disregard this.

I have to be careful here. The last thing I want to do is – like my favourite South Park anti-hero PC Principal – go into performative moralising to show how progressive I am. I strongly hold the view that you should not be expected to keep quiet about horrific things going on in other parts of the world – even within the bounds of humour and satire – just because someone found it offensive. Pretending it’s not happening is the far greater crime; it’s just the possible trivialisation I’m uncomfortable with. Moreover, who is actually offended by it? Is it simply just a bunch of white moralisers being offended on behalf of black people? Apparently not. In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, various complaints emerged from former black members of cast. One point that stuck with me is that the show treaded very carefully around the depictions of Mormons, but seemingly little care was given to the sensitivities of the Ugandan characters. The show we are seeing now I understand was revised in light of these concerns – but that only make me wonder what it was like before.

If I had to make a guess as to what it is that feels different to South Park and Team America, it’s the format of the story. Characters such as Starvin’ Marvin are only two-dimensional (both literally an metaphorically), and that means you can get away with light-hearted trivialisation of subjects as dark as famine as long as it’s clear that it’s other people who are the butt of the joke here. I’m not sure, however, this holds in the more naturalistic setting of a stage musical. Some things were clearly being played for laughs, and the fifth the same guy sang the line about having maggots in his scrotum that felt particularly uncomfortable. And neither do I say how you can excuse that as poking fun at other people.

It is important, however, to keep this in context. Ultimately, this comes down to something I know Trey Parker and Matt Stone will agree with: if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Nobody forces you to see something you’re going to be offended by. Unless, of course, you wish to argue that the musical is actively harmful – but that really would be a stretch. I see what this musical was meant to achieve, I’m right behind it, and had it been more like their infamous animation I probably would have been right behind that too. But I just can’t reconcile this with the format of a stage musical. Whether you can reconcile it is up to you.

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