Juvenile Instructor » Broadway, The Book of Mormon, and Blackness
 


Broadway, The Book of Mormon, and Blackness

By: Christopher - June 14, 2011

(cross-posted at Religion in American History)

Over at Religion Dispatches, Jared Farmer, professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of the excellent On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, reviews the multiple Tony Award-winning broadway play, The Book of Mormon.

By all accounts, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s satirical look at Mormon missionaries in Africa is funny. With very few exceptions, everyone I’ve talked to that has seen it—including a number of believing Latter-day Saints—has praised both its humor and its ultimately touching (if somewhat condescending) message about religion: Religion (especially the brand of religion preached by Mormons) is naive, silly, and based on absurd beliefs and unprovable truth claims, but that belief can ultimately motivate adherents to do good, help others, and improve the world.

Farmer largely agrees with this assessment. “The Book of Mormon is fun, and occasionally uproarious,” he writes. “If the giddy laughter I heard at the sold-out show on Easter Sunday is any indication, theatergoers love it.” He then goes on to offer a more complete critique of the play than I’d previously seen, noting the ways in which Parker and Stone’s portrayal of Mormon missionaries is sometimes on target (“Pairs of missionaries (“companions”) do often resent each other; sexual tension, homophobia, homesickness, and boredom strain the relationships of these co-workers/roommates. Many missionaries dislike their geographic assignments. Even as they compete against each other for baptisms in the field, missionaries often struggle to convert a single person in two years of service.”) and other times not even close (“Pairs of missionaries are never equals; there is always a “senior companion” and a “junior companion.” The various missionaries (men and women) in an area are supervised by one (male) “mission president” and his wife, not by a three-person bishopric. … The missionary program certainly no longer encourages Latter-day Saints to gather in Salt Lake City.”), and the concludes by suggesting that “Most egregiously, the play mischaracterizes Mormon theology.” This is tricky territory, as Mormonism has no systematic theology, and some of Farmer’s points seem more credible to me than others. I think he’s right that “Unlike evangelical missionaries who want to save you from going to hell, LDS missionaries want to help you reach your potential in heaven. Mormon eschatology is radically egalitarian, and very American: everyone gets a second chance, everyone wins,” but his suggestion that “for Joseph Smith and his followers, the existence of the translated text—proof of Smith’s prophetic powers—was more important than its contents” is open to debate. Farmer’s argument echoes that of a former generation of historians, but much new research on early Mormonism suggests exactly the opposite; that early Mormons read the book’s contents with care and that the Book of Mormon‘s teachings shaped early Mormon theology in ways previously ignored.

Couched in between Farmer’s analysis and critique of the Book of Mormon musical, though, is something that has been repeatedly mentioned in passing by numerous friends but never fully teased out—a seemingly significant critique of the Broadway hit that those too focused on the delightful ways in which the South Park creators mock Mormons have opted to either ignore or quickly dismiss. I speak of the show’s racial overtones. Farmer summarizes the salient points:

The plot twists at the end raise questions about the racial politics of the show. Only a threat of American violence saves the villagers from the tyranny of the local warlord. Only the ingenuity of the white men provides Africans a useful religion. The dewy-eyed boys from Utah share the genius of Joseph Smith: the Yankee spirit of invention. The musical’s happy ending, complete with black missionaries in neo-Mormon garb, contains a strong note of American chauvinism.

And then offers his most stinging critique of the musical:

I cringed in my seat at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre as I watched talented African American actors hamming up “African-ness” for cheap laughs. It brought to mind the long, shameful history of Americans—black and white—performing blackness (often in blackface) on stage for white audiences. The Book of Mormon wants to have it both ways. It wants to make fun of The Lion King and its African stereotypes by substituting more authentic stereotypes. It wants to be transgressive and conventional, blasphemous and saccharine. This combination is not impossible, but incredibly difficult to achieve. Parker, Stone, and Lopez don’t pull it off.

If nothing else, Farmer’s critique on this point raises important questions about the intersections of religious and racial representation and satire, and that, I think, is a conversation worth having.

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25 Comments

  1. This is great stuff, Chris; I though Farmer’s review was the best I’ve seen, and I’m glad you highlighted it here.

    Comment by Ben — June 14, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  2. Agreed. Thanks for highlighting these issues, Chris.

    Comment by Jared T — June 14, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  3. Yes, a great review.

    Comment by Randy B. — June 14, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  4. This is great, Chris.

    Comment by David G. — June 14, 2011 @ 10:30 am

  5. …that, I think, is a conversation worth having.

    Agreed, I was surprised that this element hasn’t received much attention in reviews or critiques of the show. The more I’ve exchanged words with fans of the musical, though, the less I’ve found many of them interested in questions like this. Their easy out is the cover of satire or parody, which admittedly can be fun and useful means of social commentary/criticism. But any criticism of satire can easily be deflected by saying “you lack a sense of humor” or “you miss the real point” or “you look silly trying to turn entertainment into an academic exercise.” There’s a very easy opportunity to play a “heads I win, tails you lose” game here. For instance, on a facebook conversation one of the responders to this article defended the writers by saying that the racist caricatures are actually the views of, and thus the fault of, the Mormons themselves. The writers depicted Africans this way because that’s how the Mormons think of them. I thought it was an interesting move.

    All this boils down to venue and intended audience of course.

    Comment by BHodges — June 14, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  6. Chris, thanks for pointing out Farmer’s review. I had not run across it before, and found it intriguing. I have not seen the musical, nor listened to any of the musical clips on the internet, so everything I know about the musical is second hand. I had read at least one other review that at least said that the musical misrepresented Uganda and it’s people more than it had Mormons, but I don’t recall the author. That review did not get into as much detail as Farmers.

    Parker and Stone can be very funny, but not much to my taste. They seem to subscribe to the thought that if a little exaggeration or mild crudity is funny, going way over the top must necessarily then be hilarious. It would appear that they don’t fully understand the boundaries of the art form they’ve chosen, and have overreached somewhat.

    Comment by kevinf — June 14, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  7. Is he essentially arguing, “why didn’t Parker and Stone base their story in Eastern Europe or El Salvador, or something?” Dunno if Farmer realizes this, but probably Parker and Stone are also poking fun at the constant criticism anyone gets who proselytizes a Christian nation that they ought to “go to Africa and preach there.” I can’t tell you how often Romanians said that to me on my mission in Romania.

    Knowing Parker and Stone’s material, I just can’t see them falling for even inherent racism. That Joseph Smith is American, cannot be helped. That Mormonism is a radically American religion (when almost all other Christian religions have their base in Europe), also cannot be helped. That Mormonism participated in racism against peoples of African descent clearly raises the bar and removes a benefit of doubt for any piece that attempts a story like this. And in one piece of entertainment, not all variables can be addressed. At some point, you have to pick a location, a people, characters and issues.

    Comment by Dan — June 14, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  8. Thanks for the responses, everyone. I haven’t seen the show myself (though I’d like to), and so I’ll reserve judgment on these points until (and if) I do. But I trust Farmer as something of an expert on the histories of both Mormonism and race in America, and think the points he raises are important.

    Dan,

    Knowing Parker and Stone’s material, I just can’t see them falling for even inherent racism.

    Knowing Parker and Stone’s material, I just can’t see how anyone could honestly believe that. No matter their intentions, much of their material is virulently racist, as Farmer notes in his review:

    It seems relevant that Parker, Stone, and their collaborator, Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), each have backgrounds in puppetry. Their Broadway characters talk, sing, and dance like puppets, and they might be funnier as actual puppets—or cartoons. The musical made me think of the Ethiopian character “Starvin’ Marvin” from the first season of South Park. Starvin’ Marvin worked as a paper cutout. A child actor performing the same role on stage would be appalling.

    The intent may well have been to highlight, as Blair suggests some have, how Mormons supposedly view Africans. But the portrayal of Africans and African Americans on stage has a deeply offensive history, and that context matters.

    Comment by Christopher — June 14, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

  9. The article passingly mentions new scholarship emphasizing the role the Book of Mormon played in shaping Mormon theology – can you toss out a few examples of that? I’m much more familiar with the “BoM as a symbol rather than source of doctrine” idea and am interested in other views…

    Comment by Casey — June 14, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

  10. Christopher,

    Clearly they play on American racism, but for laughs or for biting satire as opposed to portraying how they view life. There’s a big difference in racism and entertainment meant to poke fun at racism. I just don’t see Parker and Stone as racist.

    Comment by Dan — June 14, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  11. Dan: I don’t think one has to necessarily be outright “racist” to—whether knowingly or unknowingly—perpetuate and employ racist material. That’s the thing about racism: it sneaks into much of what we do, even with those who dedicate themselves to more enlightened ideals. I think South Park is a great example of this, as racial scholars have long noted.

    Casey: unfortunately, most of the arguments are still in embryo stage and nothing of length has been published on this challenge to the “BoM as symbol” narrative. I think some of the best work on it is Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation on Joseph Smith’s political thought, as well as Rob Jensen’s work on the early translations and revelations as foundational documents. Hopefully more will be in print soon. Ironically, the forthcoming biography of Parley Pratt which is coauthored by Terryl Givens (who was one of the primary scholars behind the “BoM as symbol” narrative) documents how much the BoM played a role in Pratt’s intellectual development, though it still holds that Pratt was somewhat unique.

    It should be also noted that not everyone is fully convinced on this new direction, though, including myself. But the fact that it is being pushed by some of the brightest minds in Mormon studies makes it an important issue.

    /long rant to a short question.

    Comment by Ben — June 14, 2011 @ 9:18 pm

  12. I’m not sure whether racism is involved or not; seems to me more in the line of outrageous buffoonery (which, after all, does have a long tradition both in the theatre and in the work of Messrs. Parker and Stone).

    But I did like Jared Farmer’s thoughtful review, this post and the ensuing conversation.

    Comment by SLK in SF — June 15, 2011 @ 8:53 am

  13. Ben, are there sources in print that make this point? I’m working right now on the “Book of Mormon” chapter of the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism. I’m open to the idea that the contents of the Book of Mormon had an impact on the thinking of early Latter-day Saints, but Grant Underwood is pretty convincing when he argues that the first generation of Mormons preached from the Bible rather than from the Book of Mormon. And from what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like Joseph Smith knew the Book of Mormon very well—he almost never referred to it in extant writings or sermons.

    Comment by Grant Hardy — June 15, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  14. Grant: I agree that Underwood et. all have been pretty convincing. None of the new scholarship has been in print yet, but the work that immediately comes to my mind is Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation from Arizona State, “Zion Rising: Joseph Smith’s Early Social and Political Thought.” If you need a copy of it, just give a shout. I’ve also seen a few conference papers that have tried to challenge the “BoM as Symbol,” thesis, but none of them have made it into print either.

    Hopefully some of these arguments can eventually be published so as to further the debate.

    Comment by Ben — June 15, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  15. Grant, obviously blog posts don’t count for much, but you may want to look at my post on how early Mormons were reading 3 Nephi 20:15-16 and the other posts I link from there.

    Comment by David G. — June 15, 2011 @ 11:00 am

  16. Jack Welch has some material on the BoM and early Church governance (using Cowdery’s pre-now-D&C 20 as an example) but I don’t think it has been published yet.

    Grant, can you spare any more details about that Oxford handbook? I just finished reading their handbook on the reception history of the Bible. Very fascinating stuff. Review forthcoming.

    Comment by BHodges — June 15, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  17. Just for the record, in my U.S. mission in 1978-1980, we didn’t have any junior or senior companions. Everyone was “co-senior.”

    I don’t know if any missions have co-senior companions now, but either way, as inaccuracies go, that sounds pretty minor.

    Comment by Left Field — June 15, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

  18. Ben, I would be interested in Mark’s dissertation if there were some easy way to get access to it.

    David, thanks for the link.

    Blair, the handbook is being edited by Phil Barlow and Terryl Givens. They have put together contributors for about 40 brief essays on Mormon history, thought, and culture. I’ll let you contact them for more details, but the Oxford Handbooks are tremendous scholarly resources.

    Comment by Grant Hardy — June 16, 2011 @ 7:28 am

  19. Jack Welch’s material is largely informed by Scott Faulring’s pieces on Oliver Cowdery’s Articles (a precursor to the Articles and Covenants, or D&C 20): 1998 Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and 2004 BYU Studies.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2011 @ 8:24 am

  20. Grant: I sent you an email.

    Also, it looks like Jack Welch’s paper is published here, though it doesn’t seem too convincing.

    Comment by Ben — June 16, 2011 @ 11:16 am

  21. Ben, thanks for linking to Jack’s piece. I find the general premise of Faulring’s and Welch’s articles convincing–that Oliver Cowdery was using and citing the Book of Mormon when drawing up the Articles. Sure, they could both do more to acknowledge that the BoM’s organization structure looks awfully similar to Methodism and other contemporary groups (that’s where Chris’ work will change things, hopefully), but that doesn’t alter the fact that OC quotes and cites the BoM throughout his document, which in turn shaped the Articles and Covenants (D&C 20). I think more broadly, it should give scholars pause when generalizing from Underwood’s argument that missionaries were not using the BoM in their sermons and preachings to other areas where the BoM was read and used in early Mormonism.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

  22. Grant, I’m not persuaded that Mormons weren’t reading BoM. They weren’t proof-texting it as often as the Bible in outward preaching, but I’ve never been convinced by the purported consensus that early Mormons didn’t read/use the Book of Mormon. In part I think it fails to appreciate the ways that the Book of Mormon was itself a form of Biblical exegesis and repair. Holland nods toward this latter use in his book on canon, though there’s more to be written on it.

    Comment by smb — June 16, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

  23. [...] Jared Farmer, “Why The Book of Mormon (the musical) is Awesomely Lame”.  I highly recommend this review, which appeared in Religion Dispatches. Farmer’s article is discussed by Christopher at The Juvenile Instructor [...]

    Pingback by This Week in Mormon Literature, June 17, 2011 | Dawning of a Brighter Day — June 17, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

  24. Grant I had nearly exactly the same words SMB wrote before I saw that he had written them. (So close that I thought I’d already commented until I saw SMB at the end)

    It’s interesting as been reading Staker’s Hearken, O Ye People and was very surprised how much the narrative of the Book of Mormon guided early people. They might not, as SMB said, used it for proof texting the way today we often quote Mosiah 3, 2 Ne 2, Alma 42, Moroni 10 etc. But proof texting isn’t the only use of the text (and many of us would say it’s actually one of the worst).

    Comment by Clark — June 17, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

  25. Parker and Stone have a long history of crapping on minorities or anyone else that gets a cheap laugh.Africans are funny, Croatians aren’t. It’s simple.

    Comment by LR Whitney — June 22, 2011 @ 4:39 am