Imagine that Bill Leak wrote a musical in the last few years of his life. The musical was intended to satirise a pair of white, Green-voting, hippie transcendentalists who arrive in Maningrida to save the Aborigines there from their lives of welfare dependence, child abuse and neglect, and family violence (which were some of Leak’s specific concerns in recent cartoons). Let’s imagine that he spent months researching the foibles and quirks of white, Green-voting, hippie transcendentalists—their bizarre beliefs, their patterns of speech, their prejudices, their behaviours—so that he could write a buddy story set against what he would portray as the social decay and cultural anomie of Maningrida. And let’s imagine that he never once went to Maningrida, or spoke to anyone who lives there, but instead fell back on some well-worn stereotypes of the kind of Aborigines that live only in the minds of white Australians, in order to provide comic relief.
Let’s be thankful Bill Leak didn’t write that musical, because it would have been a train wreck. Let’s now imagine that he began the work but never finished it, and it was picked up by another writer who thought it might appeal more to a secular, theatre-going demographic if the white, Green-voting, hippie transcendentalists were replaced by a pair of Catholic missionaries. The story would then go like this: two churchy losers—one enamoured with his own self-importance, the other lacking in social skills, but both well meaning if hopelessly misguided by their faith in a shonky doctrine—are posted to Maningrida by their seminaries. They encounter the local Aborigines full of disease, child abuse, violence and ignorance, and the missionaries find that preaching to them out of their book of nonsense works. The Aborigines are saved and the Catholic tradition takes root—albeit in an amended, localised form. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Now replace Maningrida with a Ugandan village, and Catholic missionaries with Mormon ones, and you have the plot of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s wildly successful Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon is intended as a satirical take on religion, which is how the overwhelming bulk of critics and audiences see it. For secular audiences, Parker et al.’s Mormons are certainly amusing, with their white schoolboy shirts and their dorky haircuts and their repressed homosexuality and their ridiculous belief in an all-American Christian prophet who led his followers to a promised land in Utah.
All I knew of The Book of Mormon was that it was a wickedly funny take on organised religion. I was surprised, then, to see the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) come out of it relatively unscathed. Sure, the on-stage Mormons are a bit kooky. They believe silly things, and they do the closeted gay thing particularly well (though our hero, Elder Arnold Cunningham, ultimately transfers his adoration from his missionary buddy, Elder Kevin Price, to a local woman, Nabulungi). But they mean no harm. And ultimately their methods work: they manage to save the local Ugandans by converting them to their church. The ‘clever’ twist in this story is that Elder Arnold, who as a compulsive liar has effected their conversions by embellishing the Book of Mormon with episodes involving characters from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, is ultimately revered as the prophet of a new breakaway church based in Uganda. This is perhaps the most devastating of all the blows aimed at LDS, because it ridicules the church’s actual founding in New York by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have translated it from a set of golden plates that mysteriously were never seen again.
For some reason, though, nobody’s talking about the way Uganda is portrayed in The Book of Mormon. I hadn’t heard a single word about it in the six years I’d known of the musical—not from friends, and not from the ether. I’ve checked this since with friends who haven’t seen it: they knew about the religion stuff, but they had no idea Uganda was even an element until I told them. Many reviews barely acknowledge the Africa thing. Surely this needs explaining. The Book of Mormon has reached stratospheric levels of success. It’s gone well beyond the cult success of South Park. It’s won all the accolades. It’s wooed most of the critics. Why is nobody talking about Uganda?
In Australia, Parker and Stone have been interviewed by the ABC, The Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun and a range of other outlets. Not once have they ever been asked about their treatment of Uganda. The interviewers, and most reviewers, stay obediently on topic: The Book of Mormon is an atheist’s love letter to religion, says Stone. The New York Post, The New York Times, Jon Stewart, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal…practically every reviewer in every major outlet is silent about Uganda. Why?
The obvious answer is that Parker et al.’s ‘Uganda’ is part of the joke on the Mormons. Here’s what critics seem to have accepted about the treatment of Uganda, in the rare instances that they’ve mentioned it at all: the ridiculous representation of ‘Africa’ is how the stupid, ignorant, buffoonish Mormons see Africa. As a place of no discernable culture, where there are men who rape babies because they believe that will cure their AIDS. Where there are nubile African women who prance around in nighties and keep smiling when white men mispronounce their name as ‘Necrophilia’. Where there are men mutilating women’s genitals (the joke, apparently, is funny because Uganda actually has a pretty low rate of genital mutilation compared with other countries in the region). Where there is a General Buttfuckingnakedandsatan, obviously styled off the real-life Joshua Blahyi aka General Butt Naked. The joke here is that he was a warlord in Libya, not Uganda. Libya, Uganda; tomato, tomato. Wow, those Mormons sure were ignorant.
The first laugh comes at the very first mention of Uganda—as if the stupid ignorant white Mormons could imagine that anyone would want to go there, especially when we know Elder Price really wanted to go to Orlando. Then we laugh as a Ugandan village appears, complete with ramshackle huts and dead buffalo being dragged around, which is of course how stupid ignorant white Mormon missionaries would see a Ugandan village. And then we laugh at the way stupid ignorant white Mormon missionaries would laugh at black people who pronounce ‘Salt Lake City’ as ‘Saaalt Lay-kaa SEE-tee’ and black people who describe typing on a typewriter as ‘texting’ and black people who have funny names and black people and black people and black people. Hilariously, the Devil and most of the ‘cast’ of Mormon Hell are played by black people! The jokes are evidently so clever that the white writers telling them only need the black people on stage as props: they translate immediately to the overwhelmingly white (given the specific cultural milieu of musical theatre and the exorbitant ticket prices) audience, which laughs on cue every time. The whole spectacle also works, it appears, as a brilliant parody of those early minstrel shows that mostly had white actors mimicking black people in blackface, but that sometimes had black actors mimicking black people. The mimicry in The Book of Mormon must be exceptional, because they really get inside the heads of those ignorant white Mormon missionaries and their self-evident racism.
This joke, I suppose, is not only on the Mormons: it’s also on all the other ignorant white people who think about ‘Africa’ like this. Perhaps the cleverest thing about The Book of Mormon is the way it manages to keep actually-racist white people out of the theatres while using black actors who have no creative control to tell jokes written by non-racist white people about Africans that would be blatantly racist if there were actually-racist white people in the audience and if Parker and Stone had intended to be racist instead of satirical. This is quite a complicated manoeuvre, and it obviously takes quite a high level of sophistication to grasp it fully. Sophisticated critics clearly ‘get it’. The ‘parody’ of Africa is ‘far too close for comfort’, wrote Peter Craven in The Saturday Paper, but ‘the chief comfort of The Book of Mormon is that its fundamental structures, the foundation upon which it rests, is unspeakable bad taste’. Less sophisticated people might interpret that as another way of saying that racism is actually OK if you intend it in bad taste, but such an interpretation would presumably only betray their lack of sophistication.
Part of the reason the humour is apparently so sophisticated is that while Parker et al. worked very hard to make sure the Mormon stuff was accurate, there’s no evidence they spoke to anyone from Uganda. The village we see on stage was taken entirely from inside their heads, so the joke is actually an incredibly sophisticated one between the white-guy writers and their overwhelmingly white audience. Of course, this kind of humour doesn’t work for just anyone. You first need to build bad-taste cred. Even though I’m a non-racist white person (by definition, because I was in a Book of Mormon audience), if I share an ironic joke with another white man about Asian women who slice off their husband’s dicks, it doesn’t really matter that I intend the joke ironically; I haven’t built enough bad-taste cred yet. Parker and Stone, however, have been doing this kind of thing for two decades. Personally, as a non-misogynist man, I’m very much looking forward to what I hope will be their next musical hanging shit on those ridiculous Men’s Rights Activists. For comic relief, maybe it’ll feature battered women who refuse to leave their violent husbands and end up getting raped with dogs. That would be incredibly sophisticated and in such bad taste.
And yet for all this zinging sophistication, we still don’t really have an adequate response to someone who asks why any discussion of Uganda has been edited out of the public conversation about The Book of Mormon. It’s certainly possible to imagine a similar depiction of ‘Africa’ written by black writers for black audiences, as a postcolonial inversion that satirises white imaginaries of ‘the dark continent’. But this depiction was written by white men for overwhelmingly white (or at least non-black) audiences. The LDS didn’t fully open its institution to Africans—or African Americans—until 1978, a fact that’s referenced in the musical (inside a joke). Yes, the on-stage Uganda is no doubt meant to be the Uganda that the missionaries see. But it also happens to be the one we see. Would there be even five people in every audience who know the church’s troubled racial history? And are middle-class whites in musical theatre audiences in New York and London and Melbourne and Sydney and Stockholm really all that familiar with postcolonial theory?
The sixty-something (white) woman sitting next to me could tell I wasn’t in raptures. At intermission she asked me why. ‘I don’t know—doesn’t it seem like we’re being asked to laugh at black people?’ I asked. ‘Oh, no, it’s poking fun at everyone equally’, she replied, and turned away from the conversation.
Coincidentally, that also happens to be the way white Australia approaches racial politics: with a fierce commitment to ‘equality’ of a kind that wipes away all historical injustice and historical dispossession and the historical record of what actually happened, so that our idea of what we call ‘equality’ is built on a foundation of deep denialism. For extreme examples, think of Pauline Hanson’s incapacity to understand why there might be some special measures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, or Andrew Bolt’s insistence that the real racists are those who keep banging on about race. As a political philosophy, liberalism is notoriously bad at accounting for the exercise of invisible power, and the strength of white Australia’s commitment to its brand of liberalism can be seen in its determined unwillingless to acknowledge the power dynamic in racism. It hasn’t just been Bolt and Hanson ‘warning’ about the threat section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act poses to freedom of speech: many white liberals who might otherwise be considered progressive have sounded similar warnings, mainly because they can’t really see how causing racial offence would offend liberalism’s harm principle. Racial power is invisible to white Australia, which is its beneficiary.
‘Poking fun at everyone equally’ might be a reason white Australia—and indeed white America and white Britain and white Sweden—is comfortable with watching Third World Africans lampooned alongside Midwestern religious idiots from Hicksville, Utah. But the ‘poking fun at everyone equally’ defence still doesn’t explain why the Ugandan plot element is entirely absent from most of the public conversation around The Book of Mormon. How have we spent the last six years committedly avoiding talking about one of the two cultural groups that appear in it?
It’s not just that the Ugandan setting isn’t marketed. At no point in The Book of Mormon is the audience asked to identify with any of its African characters—they always remain mere props for the white buddy story at the show’s centre. The black support cast slips easily into the background. Is it possible that the Ugandans, and hence the racism, become practically invisible to white (or at least non-black) observers? Invisible and in the background is a familiar position for black people in white Australia (and white America and white Britain and white Sweden), with notable exceptions in areas such as criminal justice. The fact that a racist reading of Mormon is even possible should at least cause critics to pause. But critics have tied themselves up in such knots that they’re more terrified of being accused of not getting the joke than they are of being accused of racism—which, in the end, is just one more sacred cow in our nice, white little world in which nothing is sacred anyway.
So terrified of not getting the joke are Mormon’s critics that we need to wonder whether they’ve really done their job at all. In his defence of The Book of Mormon from a lukewarm reception among British critics, The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman sidesteps any concern about the depiction of Africa by pointing out that the stage show is largely a brilliant parody of The Lion King. With its anthropomorphic animals and its missing humans, The Lion King is certainly guilty of romanticising Africa. Its heritage is in the Lost World fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling rather than the anti-colonial critiques of Frantz Fanon. It’s ripe for satire. But at least hakuna matata is an actual Swahili phrase. The Book of Mormon has its black cast repeat the words ‘hasa diga eebowai’, which apparently translates as ‘fuck you, God’—except that the idiom is entirely made up. The clever satire here, apparently, is that ‘hasa diga eebowai’ sounds vaguely ‘African’ to ignorant white Mormon missionaries and other ignorant white Hicksville racists, and the parody is that the black cast performs a Lion King–style musical number with a made-up ‘African’-sounding phrase that expresses what middle-class whites would be thinking if they had to live in much of Uganda. Whether it is really a parody of Disney’s romanticisation of Africa to put in its place a phrase that sounds to white ears like it could be a real thing because it sounds vaguely ‘African’ is a question that’s beyond the scope of critical inquiry, it seems.
But if we put aside for a moment our collective fear about not getting the joke, we should be able to acknowledge that much of the racial humour here belongs to the world of the Twelfth Man. Remember Billy Birmingham’s riffs on Pakistani cricketers’ names, like ‘Aqib Mateethinajarbesidethebed’ and ‘Ahmed Iminagaybar’? These were jokes that worked for white audiences about Pakistanis: they didn’t need actual Pakistani involvement, and probably worked better without it.
The last time Uganda went viral, it was the setting for the internet sensation Kony 2012, the slacktivist-documentary by Invisible Children Inc that set off a very intense but very brief round of outrage that completely failed to locate Joseph Kony. General Buttfuckingnaked is probably styled off Kony as much as Blahyi, the point being that Mormon’s Ugandan village is really just ‘anywhere in Africa’ for an audience that’s mostly never been there. But is Kony’s Uganda ready to be laughed at by comfortable, middle-class audiences in London and New York and Melbourne? Because it purported to be factual, Kony 2012 incited criticism for its simplistic and sometimes factually inaccurate portrayal of Uganda. For Mormon to have escaped this kind of criticism is understandable. But should it have escaped all racially informed criticism on the (also very simplistic) basis that its intent is satirical?
For all the marketing hype about blasphemy and sharp, anti-religious satire, it’s not the Christians who cop it in The Book of Mormon. LDS itself breathed a sigh of relief when the show first played in New York. On its website in February 2011, the church wrote: ‘The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ’. That was its entire response—not much indication there that the church was smarting from a well-aimed satirical blow. And no wonder: there are recorded instances of audience members converting to Mormonism after seeing the musical. At times, the stage show looks and feels a lot like an evangelical rock opera. That is very subtle satire.
Looked at more closely, it’s not immediately clear which elements of The Book of Mormon really work as satire. Let’s take the elements of its definition. ‘The use of humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule’—tick—‘to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices’—tick—‘particularly in the context of contemporary politics or other topical issues’. It’s on this final element that satire often succeeds or fails. What is the point that The Book of Mormon is making about its Ugandans? That they’re ignorant, diseased and/or violent…in the context of a world in which Uganda lost badly out of European colonialism and kept losing under American globalisation? In which Uganda has become a gigantic dumping ground for Western consumer excess, hence that discarded typewriter Nabulungi finds?
Satire that punches down, rather than aims at those who wield real political and economic power, isn’t really satire at all. It’s cruelty. That’s why the late Bill Leak’s cartoons about domestic violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities don’t work. If they were drawn from within those communities, then maybe. But in Leak’s world, real power was (and is) wielded by federal and state governments and by corporations. Perhaps because he spent too much time inside the warped world of The Australian, in the last decade or so he took his eye off the main game and began ripping into people who couldn’t fight back.
Come to think of it, it’s not entirely clear that The Book of Mormon works as a satire about religion. Instead of a church that wields actual power, like the Catholic Church, it selects as its target an obscure and kooky little outfit based in Utah that, yes, has caused the same types of harm as most other brands of Christianity—it’s been racist, homophobic, sexist and authoritarian, and it probably remains some of those—but on nothing like the scale that others have. At times during the musical, as Elder Cunningham had his gullible Africans believing in hobbits and Ewoks and the Starship Enterprise, I caught myself wondering whether the target hadn’t originally been intended to be Scientology before someone chickened out. Of course, Parker and Stone had been there, done that on South Park—and the story goes that they lost Isaac Hayes (a practising Scientologist) as a result, at least for a while. Lesson learned: don’t offend anyone who matters?
Those dozens—hundreds?—of white male critics who have tripped over themselves to praise The Book of Mormon would presumably still say I’ve missed the point. I’m trapped in the earnestness of political correctness, and Parker et al. totally reject that mindset. And they’re entirely free to do so. But the cultural success of The Book of Mormon in places like New York and Melbourne and London and Stockholm would still need explaining—as would the deafening cultural silence about its portrayal of Uganda.
I’ve consciously drawn parallels between Bill Leak’s cartoons and The Book of Mormon. But I don’t think the musical’s packed-out audiences are made up only of subscribers to The Australian: there’s barely enough of those to fill a single theatre. The Book of Mormon has a substantial fan base among progressives. Leak certainly did not. What’s the difference?
In adopting the form of irreverence, with lots of swearing and poo jokes and offensiveness and apparently blasphemous musical numbers that have a black cast flipping the bird at the heavens and singing ‘fuck you, God!’, The Book of Mormon allows us to believe it’s just the kind of thing that solid progressives in the big city can get behind. But look closer. Its pop-culture references are middle-aged. Its self-proclaimed ‘blasphemy’ only works if you already have a deeply conservative idea of a deity. (Peter Craven again: ‘The Book of Mormon is impossible not to like… I say this as someone who has whatever poor reverence I can muster for old-time religion…’.) As I observed the mostly middle-aged, totally middle-class and deeply white audience I was part of, I began to wonder whether the real reason The Book of Mormon works so well is that it supports our deep biases and prejudices while also speaking superficially to our self-image as progressive trend-buckers. Whether, in its reinforcement of deep racial politics while presenting itself as something entirely different—it’s a story about religion, not race!—The Book of Mormon might be the radical opposite of satire. Perhaps instead it’s confirmation bias.
In an era of Brexit and Trump and the reassertion of white America’s privileged self-image against incursions in recent decades by the demands of minorities, it’s very easy for white progressives to congratulate ourselves that we’re worldlier than those dangerous rednecks. What is much harder, as it turns out, is to truly acknowledge the claims—and the implications—of the disturbing new cultural politics of identity. Perhaps what The Book of Mormon offers for white liberals is a two-hour catharsis wrapped cleverly in a flimsy packaging of religious satire.
Black voices are oddly absent from the public conversation about Mormon. ‘Rachel’ has a review on the Nigerian blog Viva-Naija, and this is her take: ‘I was ready to walk out of the theatre 20 minutes into the production. The onslaught of racism was so glaring and relentless that it made for very uncomfortable watching… In the eyes of the missionaries, the colonisers and the good people of the West, we are all clitori-chopping, baby-fucking, disease-infested savages to whom they have brought light and progress’. Clearly Rachel didn’t get the joke either, and there’s really no adequate response to her accusations. Either she just should get it because Parker et al. are actually brilliant satirists and her sense of humour just isn’t sophisticated enough, or the joke’s not actually for her. Parker et al. would then say that’s not really their problem, that they’re equal-opportunity offenders. But what about the rest of us, the critics and interviewers and audiences who have made The Book of Mormon one of the most successful musicals this century?