Thank goodness everyone watching Book of Mormon is highly sophisticated, because otherwise these jokes would be racist rot, says Russell Marks.
Thank goodness everyone watching Book of Mormon is highly sophisticated, because otherwise these jokes would be racist rot, says Russell Marks.

Popularity of Mormon musical just baffling

BACK in Brisbane this month, The Book of Mormon is a very clever musical.

Intelligent people rave about it. It's been called the funniest musical of the century.

Perhaps the cleverest thing about Mormon is the way it manages to keep racist people out of the theatre while its (white) writers tell jokes about black people that would be blatantly racist if one, there were racist people in the audience and two, its writers had intended to be racist instead of satirical.

Jokes about African people who pronounce "Salt Lake City" as "Saaalt Lay-kaa SEE-tee".

Jokes about African men who rape babies because they believe it will cure AIDS.

Jokes about African women whose genitalia are mutilated.

Thank goodness everyone writing and watching Mormon is highly sophisticated, because otherwise these jokes would be racist rot.

Sophisticated critics get it, but they know that Mormon trades on bad taste, so what looks like racism is actually, in this instance, okay.

(Less sophisticated people might interpret that as another way of saying that racism is okay if one intends it in bad taste, but such an interpretation would only betray their lack of sophistication.)

Blake Bowden as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon
Blake Bowden as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon

Of course, this kind of humour doesn't work for just anyone. One must first build bad-taste cred.

Even though I'm a non-racist white person (by definition, because I was in a Mormon audience), if I share an ironic joke with another white man about black people, it doesn't really matter that I intend the joke ironically. I haven't built enough bad-taste cred yet.

Thankfully, the South Park guys who wrote Mormon have that in spades.

If you haven't been lucky enough to see The Book of Mormon yet, you might be slightly confused. Isn't it supposed to be a take-down of organised religion?

That's certainly what all the marketing says it's about.

For all the marketing hype about sharp, blasphemous satire, though, it's not the Christians who cop it in The Book of Mormon.

Come to think of it, it's not entirely clear how Mormon works as a satire about religion. Instead of a church that wields actual power, like the Catholic Church, it selects as its target a kooky and comparatively obscure little outfit based in Utah.

The Mormon Church itself breathed a sigh of relief when the show first played in New York, and actually used it as a recruitment drive. There are recorded instances of audience members converting to Mormonism after seeing the musical.

Not much indication there that the church is reeling from a well-aimed satirical blow.

Ultimately (spoiler alert), the methods of Elder Cunningham and Elder Price work: they successfully convert the dimwitted Ugandans to their church by inventing stories involving characters from Star Wars.

Its Ugandan caricatures are the real butts of Mormon's jokes. The people who wrote them aren't black. And, given the demographics of who attends musical theatre in Australia (and Britain and North America), neither are most of those who laugh at them.

Ultimately, Mormon is a whole bunch of white people making and laughing at jokes about black people.

Its creators and fans brush this criticism aside and claim that Mormon pokes fun at everyone equally. 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 the historical record of what actually happened, so that what we call "equality" is built on a foundation of denial.

African voices have never been prominent in the public conversation about Mormon.

"Rachel" has a review on the Nigerian blog Viva-Naija, and this is her take: "The onslaught of racism was so glaring and relentless" that "I was ready to walk out of the theatre 20 minutes in."

Clearly Rachel didn't get the joke. That's hardly surprising, because the joke's not really for her.

This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in Arena Magazine. Russell Marks is a lawyer and the author of Crime and Punishment: Victims and Offenders in a Broken Justice System.


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