The Prince of Wales Theatre
the book of mormon
Ringing Doorbells and Knocking on Doors
by Sophia Boosalis
29th January 2020
My Name is Elder Price
And I would like to share with you
The most amazing book
This book will change your life!
This book will change your life!
The book of Mormon!
The song “Hello!” starts the London production of The Book of Mormon, currently playing at the Prince of Wales Theatre, with a short lived bang. Written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the hit Broadway comedy displays racial and religious stereotypes. The problematic characterisation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Ugandan people becomes a prominent feature in the storyline about two Mormon boys on their mission.
The mission is a two year endeavour partaken by young adults to share the faith in an assigned location. Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are sent on a mission to a remote village in Uganda with the naive expectations of Africa being “like the Lion King.” However, local people curse God — repeating the phrase “Hasa Diga Eebowai” — due to problems like HIV/AIDS, warlords, genital mutilation and famine. The play uses racial stereotypes about Africa, as well as characterises the local people as childish and naive. The pair of boys meet other local missionaries who use “a cool little Mormon trick” to turn off negative and upsetting emotions like homosexual orientations and domestic violence. Price and Cunningham are depicted as American colonists and Christian saviours that will bring God to save the Ugandans and succeed in converting someone. The arrogant Price tries to convince the locals by singing about John Smith, the "All-American Prophet.” As time unfolds, Price abandons his mission and his companion for Orlando. Meanwhile, Cunningham, an insecure and compulsive liar, alters the parables from the Book of Mormon to connect with the difficulties faced by the local population.
The depiction of religious faith in Broadway musicals and Hollywood often walks the fine line between blasphemy and holy. Entertainment often employs comedic devices such as stereotypes, taboos, and mistaken identity to provoke amusement and laughter. The choice of language and misrepresentation of the sacred practices and beliefs blurs the distinction between fiction and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. What does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints think of the Broadway hit? The official response on the musical from the Church in November 2012 states: “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.” The public fixates on controversy, therefore, any critical statement would only fuel the fire by attracting a wider audience. The response issued by the Church deliberately emphasises the mission of restoring man’s relationship with God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is not the only division of Christianity to be
a subject of entertainment and visual media.
Some critics have criticised the treatment of the Christian faith in fashion, music, and visual arts as an acceptable subject for popular culture. Instead, using other religious groups, such as Judaism and Islam, in similar ways would be viewed as anti-Semitic and politically incorrect. So, why is there an implicit assumption about the Christian faith being an acceptable subject for mass culture? Madonna’s music video “Like a Prayer” (1989) was condemned by the Vatican and Catholic community as sacrilegious for featuring burning crosses, stigmata scars, and Madonna’s seduction of an effigy of Christ. The 2018 Met Gala, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, received criticism for the religious themed attire worn by Hollywood celebrities like Katy Perry, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rihanna. It can be seen as hypocritical for a woman, known for her music videos “Disturbia” and “S&M”, to be seen dressed as a pope in a pearl and jewel encrusted design by Margiela. Curator of the Costume Institute Andrew Bolton framed the exhibition around the ecclesiastical vestments and accessories from the Catholic Church and 20th Century womenswear. Yet, how does one honour God and a faith without patronising that religion?
In 2019, Jani Leinonen’s McJesus, a sculpture of a crucified Ronald McDonald, was criticized for its use of the sacred Christian symbol. In Leinonen’s statement to The Art Newspaper, he discusses how McJesus was included in the exhibition ‘Sacred Goods’ at the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel without his permission. Leinonen emphasises how he
wanted his work removed immediately as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. However, the artist never acknowledge the reason behind the religious condemnation of the artwork. Israel’s cultural minister, Miri Regev, demanded for the removal of the sculpture from the state-funded cultural institution. Regev believed the image as disrespectful to a religious symbol and faith community, therefore, considered not eligible to be financially supported by the government and held in a nationally funded museum.
The depiction of religious faiths and groups in popular culture and Broadway will always remain prevalent and a highly controversial debate. The Book of Mormon production will remain on Broadway as one of the highest grossing plays and the recipient of numerous accolades through its layers of satirical comedy and controversy.
Sophia is a second-year BA student. She was born and raised in San Francisco. She trained at the San Francisco Ballet, as well as completed additional programs at the American Ballet Theatre, the Boston Ballet, and the School of American Ballet. She retired at preprofessional level in order to focus on visual arts and art history at the San Francisco Art Institute during high school. She writes with an American perspective that transgresses the international border of space and culture in order to critique visual and performing arts. She aims to rethink and redefine the boundaries of artistic notions in this "globalised” era and to produce discussions taking place in the periphery.