About halfway through the nationally acclaimed “The Book of Mormon” musical now playing at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, I finally admitted I was totally offended and there wasn’t a damn thing funny.
Yes, there were a few great performances—particularly Conner Peirson as Elder Cunningham— some deep theological questions and lots of thought-provoking satire. And I got the ongoing jabs at closeted gay men hiding behind religion and the “F— You, God” refrain in a world where it’s often hard to see God at work. But far too much of “The Book of Mormon’s” laughs came at the expense of black people and some deeply racist portrayals that we don’t have the luxury to laugh at or perpetuate in today’s buck-wild political and social atmosphere.
The musical revolves around two Mormon missionaries serving their obligatory, two-year missionary stint…in Africa. One is Elder Cunningham, a bumbling man-child known for lying. The other is Elder Price (Kevin Clay), a religious stud with a narcissistic complex.
The two are assigned to a Ugandan village rife with AIDS, poverty, child abuse, an African warlord and superstitious despair. Of course, the missionaries have no clue how to connect with this culture, until Elder Cunningham stumbles on “customizing” his religion’s Book of Mormon to soothe the pain of the villagers’ real-world issues.
And that’s where this musical completely turned me off as the villagers deliver a musical showcase of Elder Cunningham’s exaggerated version of the Mormon holy book.
First, we’ve got a powerfully built black man in a blonde wig with white face leading the group. Other black men are running around with long, black, erect penises (complete with scrotums) strapped to their bodies. And another man testifies about being delivered from his desire to have sex with babies to cure his AIDS by instead having sex with frogs. The end result is all the black cast members come close to performing a latter-day minstrel show for the entertainment of a mostly white audience both on and off stage.
I give credit to Kayla Pecchioni, who played the female lead character of Nabulungi, for being perfectly cast with a lilting voice that grew stronger with each song, as did her ethereal presence with each scene. So it was totally believable that she would be the catalyst for her people’s conversion to Mormonism. What didn’t ring true, however, was the sexual attraction and, I think, seduction of a baptism scene between her and the bumbling Elder Cunningham.
When it comes to religion, the musical hit its notes. It asked questions most of us have asked at one time or another and actually had some credible responses. For example, a villager summed up their belief in the fantastical stories of The Book of Mormon in one word—metaphors—whether you agreed or not.
But there’s a big difference between frat-boy humor poking fun at the white-bread stiffness of Utah-bred missionaries and religion in a full-color world versus grinding in deeply held, racist stereotypes that seemed to have some audience members nervously laughing, unsure whether this was okay. (Believe me it wasn’t) The musical simply doesn’t have the same deft touch when it comes to the black issues that make up the core of the story.
Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with Frozen’s Robert Lopez) made their name as creators of the long-running television cartoon “South Park,” where irreverent humor is standard. I get that. And as Colorado natives, Parker and Stone are no doubt familiar with the Mormon community. The proof can be seen in the fact that the Mormon church has taken out a full-page ad in the Blumenthal program, noting that their version of events is “sliiiiightly different” than those seen on stage and offering free copies of the real Book of Mormon. But I haven’t seen, nor do I expect to see, similar accommodations coming from the black community.
I can’t say why my reaction is totally at odds with the years of reviews this show has received, because, even in the pre-Trump years, I can’t imagine reacting any differently. Maybe it’s because I’ve come across few reviews written by black people. But I know for sure that at a time when there is no doubt about the racism that has festered in this country for centuries, it’s time for a rewrite of “The Book of Mormons”—at least the musical version.
If you want to catch a performance, this show runs through July 29 at Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Limited seating may still be available.
Patsy Pressley is a former newspaper journalist and current advocate for childhood education.