Political Correctness vs The Book Of Mormon

The cast of The Book of Mormon
The cast of The Book of Mormon Photo by Julieta Cervantes
As the kids say, it’s been a minute since I’ve seen The Book of Mormon. Translation for the rest of you, several years have passed since I last saw the show.

The first time was the original Tony Award-winning 2011 production on Broadway, followed by touring productions in no less than three cities. Each one a wickedly caustic bout of good musical fun. Yes, the show mocks The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, depicting its members as repressed non-thinking drones following an obviously made up religion. For sure, the plot lampoons poor, rural Africans, portraying them as AIDS-ridden, Luddites. And indeed there are moments where sexual preference, race, disease and abuse are fodder for punch lines. Not to mention a whole smorgasbord of expletives, including the song, "Hasa Diga Eebowai", which the Ugandan villagers explain means, Fuck God. But hey, it’s all in good fun, right? And besides, it was the South Park guys (along with Robert Lopez) who created the musical, so we all knew what to expect.

But that was then. Before saying the wrong word in a joke could derail your career. Before certain subjects were deemed un-jokeable. Before those who hoped to forge a more just and inclusive future with progressive political correctness clashed against those who called them humorless at best and permanently aggrieved at worst.

Through today’s touchy lens, what does The Book of Mormon look like? The plot remains the same — two young white Mormon missionaries, are sent to Uganda to try and convert villagers plagued with AIDS, famine and a warlord intent on circumcising every village woman. Needless to say, it doesn’t go to plan. But can we sit back and laugh at it the way we once did? Have we been conditioned away from this kind of offensive humor? Does the permission to find this funny again come as a relief? Interesting questions to ponder if you’re going to see the show, in town for a short run at the Mischer Neurosciences Broadway at the Hobby Center.

I don’t have proof, but gauging the reaction of the audience members around me, I was probably the only one thinking about any of this. They were all too busy enjoying the well-oiled machine that The Book of Mormon has become. Without question, this is a terrific touring production. It's slick without being over-processed, fast-paced but not rushed. The sets, from the squeaky sparse Mormon training center to the dingy Ugandan village, play out gorgeously as illustrated backdrops punctuated by judicious use of texture-ripe set pieces. And the cast plays it like they’re going for broke. No calling it in here, these talents belt it out and dance it up and give good face like it’s a first audition.

So easy to just get lost in all of it. And yet…..if you do stop and think, certain realities come to nibble at you. Most notably, the feeling that there’s no way this show would ever be made today. Even if someone had the guts to write it, I can’t believe any producer would come within a mile of the thing.

The South Park gang gets away with their brand of scathing take-down humor partly because they’re equal opportunity offenders. One week they’d skewer Jesus, the next it would be the gay community, then U.S. politicians or the physically challenged and let’s not forget, Tom Cruise. They stuck it to everyone. Let all of us laugh at all of us. But Book of Mormon isn’t an all-in proposition….it really is just making fun of the Mormon religion with a side plate of African derision.

Can you imagine anyone trying to sell that in this climate?

Yes, yes, there’s more to the show than that. In marrying a traditional musical structure with the corrosive South Park humor, the musical and its demand for a heartfelt message and happy ending wins. Underneath all that taking the piss out, The Book of Mormon has something really lovely to say – it doesn’t matter what you believe in or if it’s made up or not as long as it brings you comfort and does good.

But hold on, before we all join hands and sing Kumbaya, let’s remember that the message is not the medium in this musical. While it’s still easy to adore so many parts of The Book of Mormon (the second act still remains one of the best comically arced progressions of any show I’ve seen), the truth is it’s almost impossible to watch it the way I once did.

Whereas previously I might not have thought twice when missionary, Elder Cunningham, calls a village girl a, “hot shade of black, like a latte” or when he threatens to turn the warlord into a lesbian, now, I hear it and pause. Because I’m offended? Not exactly, it’s hard to be offended by the utter silliness of this show. I pause because the problems with both these notions (and others in the show) scream out at me like a bull horn. No longer can I just always laugh along as easily and carefree as before, resulting in a different Book of Mormon experience.

Others may feel this too and it might be this different experience that trips them up. Is it good that we now cringe a bit at these lines, even in the context of this hysterical, beloved, meant to offend all in good fun show? Or should we stop and realize that maybe we’ve gone too far in handcuffing humor and our ability to laugh at the subversive? Is Book of Mormon dated and out of synch in places or is it even more relevant than ever in its push to get us to lighten up?

I don’t have an answer for that except to say, go see the show, by all means, enjoy, but then think a little, and see where on the continuum you land.

The Book of Mormon runs through January 20 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit $40-$185.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman