_The Book of Mormon: The Musical_ and Mormon Minstrelsy

Last month, The Book of Mormon: The Musical premiered at the Eugene O’Neil Theater in New York, written by Trey Stone and Matt Parker (the creators of the popular and irreverent TV series South Park), along with their co-collaborator Robert Lopez (one of the creators of the equally popular and irreverent Broadway hit Avenue Q). It’s been interesting to read the reviews, see the interviews (The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart was absolutely glowing about the show), and digest all the positive press being hurled at the piece (from all the hype, I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t win this year’s Tony Award for best new musical). But shows like this, and other prominent plays, tv shows, movies, books, etc. that feature or reference Mormons, bring up some pressing questions about how Mormons are represented to the world, and who it is that is representing them. So far, at least in the public consciousness, it often seems to be a pretty lopsided conversation.

What I’m thinking about today in connection with The Book of Mormon: The Musical is something that Mormon playwright and BYU playwriting professor Eric Samuelsen  once wrote in his essay “Wither Mormon Drama: Look First to a Theatre” . At a few points in that essay Samuelsen brings up Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning set of plays Angels in America, which feature a number of prominent Mormon characters, references and themes. As good of a writer as Kushner is, and as important as the issues he addresses are to many people, Samuelsen points how Kushner’s outsider perspective on Mormonism inevitably leads him to an erroneous view of Mormon culture, Mormon beliefs, and the very identity of the Mormon people. As Samuelsen aptly states, “If Mormon drama is not created within the household of faith, the dramatic role of Mormonism will remain a bit part oddly cast on the stages of strangers and foreigners.”

Mormons are mocked by the Secular Left—we may be “nice,” but we’re represented as odd, our beliefs are supernaturally outlandish, we’re naïve, gullible, authoritarian, homophobic, anti-feminist, conservative and squeaky clean. Then we’re attacked by the Religious Right—we may pass certain political litmus tests, such as our traditionally pro-Life stance, which makes us good allies in a political pinch, but we are often presented as cultish, blasphemous, not Christian enough, polytheist, extra-Biblical, plus worshippers of Joseph Smith and modern authority (and there’s definitely resistance to allowing Mormons the Christian political platform to elect a Mormon for president, lest they actually seem respectable). Mormons are pressed in from all sides, our beliefs distorted, our culture simplified, our history taken out of context, complex scenarios and issues set up as watered down straw men, all of it manipulated by powers who think we’re too religious, not enough of the right kind of religious, or (worse yet) competitors.

Yet people of all kinds of political and social persuasions seem to want to reference us and our beliefs for their own purposes. Mormons are the new minstrels. Might as well put on the blackface, except this time the stereotype is white shirts, ties, plastic smiles, and (if they haven’t done their homework) polygamist bonnets.

For here’s the thing—people have no real interest in understanding us, our history, or our beliefs. If they did, they would take a more serious, academic approach like serious non-Mormon scholars such as  Jan Shipps and Margaret Barker do; or (gasp!) a spiritual, religious approach like the many Mormon converts who have travailed the spiritual pilgrimage of prayer and study for near two centuries.

Despite their more gentle, affectionate nature (and some measure of grudging respect), Parker and Stone’s Mormon minstrelsy is just as pronounced as any I’ve seen. They get a good many more details right than I’ve seen some writers get–even though they make some gaffes, like in the South Park episode where they claim that Martin Harris (or anyone else) never saw the gold plates, although Harris’s and several other people’s testimonies to the contrary are written there right in the front of the Book of Mormon. But Parker and Stone’s frequent portrayal of Mormons, though kind of affectionate and sort of charitable, lack that connection to real Mormons. Their work doesn’t even merit the level of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of cultural understanding, although like the well meaning Harriet Beecher Stowe, I’m afraid that they may simply be re-enforcing stereotypes, as condescendingly kind as those stereotypes may be. This, of course, is good for a quick buck, for those weird Mormons are always reliable for a laugh.

For those who want a spoofy animated short, or a well made minstrel show, they can go to Stone, Parker and Lopez. Heck, I may even buy a ticket for The Book of Mormon next time I find myself in New York. But for those who truly want to understand a culture unlike their own, these kind of sketch artists are not the way to go. Just like you don’t go to writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe (or even Mark Twain) to understand the African-American culture, as important, valuable and course changing as their respective stories are.

If the world really is serious about conversing with Mormons about their religious heritage (with or without the proselyting), and just don’t want to use Mormons for a cheap, good natured chuckle, then they’ll need to be more welcoming of those artists who actually hail from the Mormon community. That may not happen soon, as history has illustrated that a cultural majority is not willing to hand over their microphone to those not in step with them.

An open minded dialogue about a certain culture needs to include writers who hail from that culture… writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Chaim Potok, and Khaled Hosseini. I have met the equivalents to these kind of writers in the Mormon community. Now we will see if the broader culture will ever take the most talented Mormon writers and artists seriously enough to give them the spotlight, or if they are simply satisfied with Mormon coon shows.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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45 Responses to _The Book of Mormon: The Musical_ and Mormon Minstrelsy

  1. Grant says:

    I knew subscribing to this blog was a good idea after I got linked here by Dan Wells. Great post!

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Mahonri,

    I really like what you write here, although I also think that there’s a substantial burden on us as Mormon artists to tell our stories in ways that non-Mormons will find easy to understand and identify with. In so doing, I think we may find that we bring to the table not only our own unique culture, but also some universal human elements that sometimes get short shrift these days in popular entertainment. (I’m still hyped here from James Goldberg’s manifesto of a couple weeks ago, posted here: http://blog.mormonletters.org/index.php/2011/03/long-live-the-revolution.)

    What I found from my own novel is that even a story that’s very Mormon in both its details and its basic conflict can still speak to non-Mormon readers, even if they don’t share much common belief or worldview on a superficial level. Granted, my sampling pool is pretty small (No Going Back hasn’t had many readers at all, Mormon or non-Mormon), but I have honestly been surprised at how many readers without a Mormon background have told me that the story moved them and that they felt they knew something more about Mormons once they were done. So I have high hopes for literature that can speak effectively to non-Mormons in a distinctly Mormon but also fundamentally human voice.

    • Jana H says:

      Just purchased your novel for nook. Thanks for having it available in nook format and for an affordable price :)

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Thanks for your interest. I look forward to your comments (positive, negative, or mixed) once you’ve had a chance to read it.

  3. C. M. Malm says:

    Wow, Mahonri, right now I’m having that sensation of resonance–where someone has just said, in the most excellent and insightful words, things that I’ve been feeling for a long time about how “the world” (as a whole and as personified in individuals around me) see our culture and our religion. They DON’T have any interest in understanding us. Even friends who tacitly accept me in spite of my “weird” religion really don’t want to know what my life is like from the inside.

    When my mom joined the Marines in WWII and was shipped to Camp Lejeune, N.C., she was often asked about her “horns.” The questions that I get asked, while less crass, are the modern cultural equivalent–the asker wants to confirm or deny what they’ve “heard” about us. If I go on to mention anything more substantial about our culture (let alone our religious beliefs!), the eyes glaze over rapidly.

    I daresay that some will find your comparisons to minstrel shows harsh or even improper, but I applaud you for daring to state a reality of Mormon experience so clearly.

  4. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Jonathan,
    Totally agree. Many of the authors who I mention above–Chaim Potok, August Wilson, Khaled Hosseinni, Lorraine Hansberry–were successful because they were able to take their community based concerns and show the world how those concerns weren’t all that different from what they experience themselves. “We read to know that we are not alone.”
    That’s what good art does. It makes us realize that the world is not full of strangers after all. There is no “other.” Just humans.

  5. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Thanks, C.M.! It was a moment of sudden clarity for me, writing this.
    As soon as I typed those words “minstrel shows” (it was not the direction I originally intended to go) I had a sort of simultaneous epiphany and dread. It was as if suddenly all these doors swung open in my mind and I made a hundred connections at once. It was actually pretty cool.
    But I also knew those were charged, emotional words. But, frankly, like you, I feel that it more than fits the times for Mormons. For some reason, maybe because Mormons are “nice,” people expect us not to get agressive back and call our critics, persecuters, and condescenders out on their hypocrisy. They want to wrestle a bit? Fine. But somehow it’s as if they expect we wouldn’t give them a verbal black eye in return during the process. Even Christ, with all his long suffering, was willing to defend himself verbally and call out the hypocrites.

  6. Scott Hales says:

    It will be interesting to see what happens with The Book of Mormon musical. Something tells me it won’t be as enduring as, say, West Side Story, but I don’t think it will be a flash in the pan either. (In some ways, it’s also too bad they didn’t get Julie Taymor to direct it and U2 to write the score.)

    That said, I think, for me, one of the great things about this new musical is that it gives me a stronger desire to be a better advocate of more authentic representations of Mormons. There aren’t any out there that have the publicity and budget of The Book of Mormon musical, but we can use our (admittedly) limited influence to direct genuinely interested parties to the “real” stuff.

    And that’s another nice thing to think about: there is “real” stuff of quality. Even though Mormon letters have a very small audience, at least they have works of authentic Mormon art that can compete aesthetically with the abundant faux-Mo art out there. I was pleased this morning, in fact, to hear Margaret Blair Young say (in one of the AML Conference recordings I recently downloaded), that Mormon literature has works that are just as good and complex as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I think she’s right. Being an optimist, I’d like to think that much of it will be more enduring, even, than the Book of Mormon musical.

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    Okay, I have to share this story, even though it might be seen as self-aggrandizing…

    The mother of one of my older son’s friends from high school happened to read No Going Back. She’s not a Mormon, but her ex-husband was. Anyway, after reading it, she contacted me to find out if I wanted to do an interview for our local community TV. Her comment to me was that she thought No Going Back did a good job of showing Mormon as just ordinary people, compared to things like Big Love that gave people the wrong idea of what Mormons are like. (Her comparison, not mine.)

    My point? Even some non-Mormons see the problem we’re talking about here — and also the potential of well-crafted fiction to change that.

  8. r byers says:

    I really enjoyed your commentary on the whole. Having just recently watched the South Park episode about mormons and talking to friends that saw “The Book of Mormon” musical I have been concerned about our portrayal. In some ways, I’d settle for technical correctness in portrayals (like the South Park that got almost all the details right), but an internally-generated, honest portrayal would go a long way toward a broader understanding of “us.” At least as well as you can honestly represent an increasingly heterogeneous “us.”

    A couple things: first, what Mormon works of literature would be on par with Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? For the most part, the body of mormon fiction/literature is a vast wasteland that I can’t stand. I’d love to see what there is of better quality.

    Second, I’m baffled by your comments about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her book was not intended to be a primer on black culture, but on the array of attitudes, culture, representative events surrounding slavery. Tom is one of the most powerful types of Christ I think I’ve ever read in literature (although Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is a good second). Are you conflating the later minstrel shows and cultural perversion of her original work, in which Tom was portrayed as a shuffling, smiling, “pet” of white people? The current cultural use of “Uncle Tom” as an epithet has no relation to her original work. I would also posit that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while fiction, was actually highly representative of the culture of slavery in the United States at the time.

    Thanks for your insightful post.

    • Jean Jennings says:

      Your Sydney Carton reference reminded me – there’s a fantastic musical version of “A Tale of Two Cities” playing in Salt Lake City right now at the Hale Centre Theatre. Mormons and all kinds of people of faith have been raving about this show.

  9. Mahonri Stewart says:

    R Byers,

    I actually really like _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_. Harriet Beecher Stowe did a very courageous thing in writing it. Lincoln said, when he met, “So this is the little lady who started the war.” That’s how influential for good it was for the equality cause.

    Many modern critics have had issue with the stereotypes portrayed in the book, however. This is what good ol’ Wikipedia has to say:

    ” Modern scholars and readers have criticized the book for what are seen as condescending racist descriptions of the book’s black characters, especially with regard to the characters’ appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate. The novel’s creation and use of common stereotypes about African Americans is important because Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel in the world during the 19th century. As a result, the book (along with images illustrating the book and associated stage productions) had a major role in permanently ingraining these stereotypes into the American psyche.

    “Among the stereotypes of blacks in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are: the “happy darky” (in the lazy, carefree character of Sam); the light-skinned tragic mulatto as a sex object (in the characters of Eliza, Cassy, and Emmeline); the affectionate, dark-skinned female mammy (through several characters, including Mammy, a cook at the St. Clare plantation); the Pickaninny stereotype of black children (in the character of Topsy); the Uncle Tom, or African American who is too eager to please white people (in the character of Uncle Tom). Stowe intended Tom to be a “noble hero.” The stereotype of him as a “subservient fool who bows down to the white man” evidently resulted from staged “Tom Shows”, over which Stowe had no control.

    “These negative associations have to a large degree overshadowed the historical impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a “vital antislavery tool.” The beginning of this change in the novel’s perception had its roots in an essay by James Baldwin titled “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In the essay, Baldwin called Uncle Tom’s Cabin a “very bad novel” which was also racially obtuse and aesthetically crude. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Power and Black Arts Movements attacked the novel, saying that the character of Uncle Tom engaged in “race betrayal”, and that Tom made slaves out to be worse than slave owners. Criticisms of the other stereotypes in the book also increased during this time. In recent years, however, scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have begun to reexamine Uncle Tom’s Cabin, stating that the book is a “central document in American race relations and a significant moral and political exploration of the character of those relations.” ”

    As much as I personally like Stowe’s very noble intentions with the book, and recognize the great good it did, I can’t take issue with the critics’ objections that the book engages in stereotypes. That’s much due to Stowe not actually being a part of that community and thus having an only superficial understanding of it. That’s to be expected, especially in that time period.

    However, that’s why I use the comparison: in like manner, Mormons are now the ones being stereotyped in popular entertainment. Even when its done by those with good intentions (as some argue that Stone and Parker have), the stereotypes they use betray a real lack of understanding about Mormons and Mormon culture (with all of its global variety and individuality) on their part.

  10. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Even the wonderful Mark Twain (who stereotyped Mormons as well) wasn’t immune from this tendency in _Huckleberry Finn_. As much as I love Jim’s character, he’s still full of a number of stereotypes common for that time. What made writers like Stowe and Twain different from many of their contemporaries, however, is that they WANTED to understand, and definitely pitched in their pens and their influences to help the Good Cause. That will always be to their credit.

    We’ll see if Stone and Parker will ever deserve similar praise…

  11. Scott Hales says:

    I certainly don’t want to spit on the graves of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. I mean, back in the day I was the only kid in my high school who had a Tolstoy t-shirt.

    That said, Mormon fiction/literature is hardly a “vast wasteland.” I’d start by reading the stories in “Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction,” then move on to other titles like Levi Peterson’s “The Backslider,” Todd Robert Petersen’s “Long After Dark,” and anything by Douglas Thayer. All of them (and others) offer plenty of complexity.

  12. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    As to dispelling the vast Mormon wasteland, I’ll recommend Angela Hallstrom’s _Bound on Earth_ and, although it is not fiction, Kathrine Lynard Soper’s _The Year My Son and I were Born_, which I feel is one of the most complex and beautifully written memoirs in American lit. While Soper doesn’t emphasize her Mormonism, she doesn’t ignore it either. And yes, read _Dispensation_, which Angela edited and the others mentioned.

    I like the comparison to the minstrel show. Even if a tad hyperbolic, the overstatement drives home the point. But in the end, it does us little good to complain about stereotypes or people using them or mocking them. In the end, if its to be different, our writers have to step up and write the stories that work for the mainstream audience, stories that neither whine nor preach. I don’t mean to suggest we shouldn’t identify the “minstrel shows” when the surface. Rather my wish is to remind my cohorts here that it is our responsibility to provide something different. Its a tough job.

  13. Enjoyed this very much. We need to assert our right not to be used as stock characters. I’m not sure why we’re fair game. Maybe because we are so averse to giving offense because of every member a missionary. But I’ve always believed in standing up to bullies. It might actually help our PR if we are a little more assertive about being treated fairly.

    There are fabulous mormon writers and other artists out there and have been. We’re just really lame at encouraging and promoting them. We have a real inferiority complex, and seem to want to look outside for approval and for models of what we think must be valuable.

  14. Joe Fox says:

    It also doesn’t help when we as Mormons lampoon and portray ourselves in the same way. When “Mormon Cinema” has devolved into a long series of parodies and inside jokes that are designed to appeal to a “Utah County” niche audience we will never appeal to anyone outside of the niche as anything real. As long as we are not telling serious stories (even serious comedys) from the point of view of realistic and idiosyncratic characters who happen to be LDS than we will always be nothing more than the peculiar comic relief.

  15. Scott Parkin says:

    I think the argument remains that it’s not a lack of quality works by Mormons that’s the problem; it’s a lack of broader reader interest in understanding Mormons that limits our ability to reach outside an insider audience.

    Potok had the establishment of Israel and the Zionist movement to raise national interest in understanding the minds of Jews (and the Holocaust that set the stage). Similar analyses can be made of the other authors mentioned as role models.

    So the question for me is, what crisis do we anticipate that will 1) cause Mormons to assert an identity in the face of national/international norms that creates the conflict that makes understanding us something more generally relevant than a passive dilettante interest, and 2) what fractures/schisms within our own community do we expect to generate as a result?

    I don’t think either Proposition 8 or Mitt Romney rise to the level. We’ve already established our nation (as it were) and we’re not socially inclined to make large public demonstrations about our religion. Despite (generally) good-natured mockery, Mormons are not actually different enough in either political or social drives than the surrounding world, and so there is nothing to raise generic interest in what we really are versus the comfortable myths that people choose to believe about us.

    In other words, what war or political movement or genocide do we look forward to as the context that finally makes us interesting? I’m not really looking forward to any such upheaval or the chaos and crisis of identity that surrounds it.

    I know that sounds cranky, but I think it’s a core part of the backgrounds of those other authors that we so easily point to as role models. I believe it was as much the historical contexts as the specific authors or stories that made them successful—and more importantly, relevant to readers outside their relatively insular communities.

    Until then, I think the best we can do is accept that most (though not all) of our real, relevant, and important stories will tend to be told to small audiences, and the broader response will continue to be either vaguely embarrassed humor or will be to simply ignore us as being less interesting than the other things going on in the world.

    In the interim, we need to continue to tell those important stories to whoever will hear them so that when events conspire to make us nationally or internationally interesting, there will be a fit canon that people can look to for understanding of who we see ourselves as and who we hope to become when that crisis passes. We will not become famous, nor will be make a lot of money. But we will be building Zion one brick and one story at a time in preparation of that difficult time when others will reap the rewards of fame and wealth made possible by these firmer foundations.

  16. Dave says:

    Send it to the newspapers as an oped piece. All the national ones.
    It’s got a chance, to be the next coon show, but hey, the readers will get it right.

    -Dave

  17. Davey says:

    I like Scott Parkin’s comment. I’m as passionate as the next guy reading the AML blog about telling our own stories, but the fact of the matter is that very few people will go see “The Book of Mormon” musical because they’re interested in learning more about Mormonism–they’ll go because they want a good story and some entertainment, and, by pretty much all accounts, the show offers both. If non-Mormons seem to be interested in Mormonism, it’s probably for a lot of the reasons Parker and Stone are–the seeming conflict between a clean-cut, conservative mid-20th century American businessman aesthetic and a sometimes wacky, sci-fi-like set of beliefs; Mormonism’s uniquely homegrown North American religious narrative; our presence as a well-known and successful (but still charmingly obscure) minority. I doubt it has anything to do with the fact that we’re nice and so we won’t complain (we may be nice, but we definitely know how to complain). And, if we really believe that great art “makes us realize that the world is not full of strangers after all,” then isn’t it perhaps a bit hypocritical to get upset when other people try to tell universal stories about us? It seems to me that’s what Kushner does with “Angels in America,” and, while there are things he gets wrong, there’s a whole lot more that, at least for me, he gets pretty astoundingly right. Kushner is coming from a very different perspective morally, spiritually, and culturally from the majority of mainstream Mormons, but I find his portrayal of Mormonism to be respectful, informed, and charitable. From everything I’ve heard, it sounds to me like that’s what “The Book of Mormon” musical is trying to do as well–I doubt I’ll like it as much as I like “Angels in America,” but it sounds in their interviews like Parker and Stone are just trying to tell a good story, and Mormonism is the setting. Sure, there may be a degree of exploitation in picking what is perhaps an easy target for satire, but I don’t think their interest in or affection for Mormonism or there interest in talking about religion in general is an act, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And, while they’re not insiders and they’re bound to get some things wrong, it sounds to me like they’ve done their homework (I liked their interview in the Tribune, where, among other things, they talk about going on the tours at Temple Square and Palmyra, and attending the Palmyra pageant: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/51431151-78/mormon-lot-musical-really.html.csp?page=1). I think it’s important to offer alternatives, and I think it’s important to tell our own stories–but why should we get annoyed when people pay attention to us? Especially when we’d probably be just as annoyed if no one was paying attention to us? (“The only thing worse than being talked about,” as Oscar Wilde put it, “is not being talked about,” which seems a pretty apt summary of the Bloggernacle’s love-hate relationship with national news stories about Mormonism.) While we don’t go to Mark Twain to get the African-American story, we do go to him again and again for what is maybe the definitive story about race in America–because it’s a good story, brilliantly and beautifully written. People shouldn’t go to “The Book of Mormon” musical expecting to get a perfectly accurate or in-depth portrait of Mormonism–but I seriously doubt anyone will. They’ll go to see a story that (it sounds like) raises some questions about how people deal with faith and think about God (among, I expect, other things), and that makes them laugh and smile and tap their toes. We should feel free to disagree with Parker’s and Stone’s conclusions, but I think, if anything, we should commend them for using their art to talk about something that’s important to them. I think it’s worthwhile to point out the stuff they get wrong, but I also think we should probably wait until we’ve actually seen the show (or, at very least, know more about it).

    • Wm Morris says:

      I think your larger point is excellent, Davey. Would you be able to elaborate on this sentence about Kushner’s “Angels in America”: “but I find his portrayal of Mormonism to be respectful, informed, and charitable”

      Because we can argue about charitable, but I fail to see how you can claim respectful and informed.

      • Davey says:

        Hmm. I’m not quite sure how to respond–I think I’d need to hear a more specific argument as to how Kushner’s piece isn’t respectful or informed in order to provide a more specific counterargument as to why I feel like it is. I love the play(s), and, a few quibbles aside (it’s hard to believe that a Mormon character who asks someone not to take the Lord’s name in vain would do so himself not too long after), I find the characters (their dilemmas, their behavior, their vocabulary, their beliefs) very believably and sympathetically Mormon. The heroine of the piece and its moral center is Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother–a strong, virtuous, positively glowing embodiment of goodness in a confused and chaotic world (distilled, for me, in her first scene when she arrives in New York City–such a lovely scene). The religious language of Mormonism and the Joseph Smith parallels are used very effectively and with some degree of subtlety (and, I think, with an appropriate sense of awe, even if it’s also frequently coupled with some irreverence) in Prior’s visions–as mentioned, Kushner is obviously promoting an agenda (in a deliberate, sincere-but-self-aware, Brechtian sort of a way) with which most Mormons would probably take issue, but it seems to me that a great deal of respect shines through in the piece both for the people and for the revolutionary American religion.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Davey,

      I’d second William’s question re: Angels in America. I’ve detailed my main criticisms elsewhere (see http://www.aml-online.org/Reviews/Review.aspx?id=4638) and won’t repeat them here. Basically, though, it seems to me that what engagement there is with Mormonism in Kushner’s work has to do with his own distorted take on the idea of Mormonism, rather than the reality of Mormon culture and beliefs.

      • Davey says:

        Jonathan,

        Interesting review–I may respond to it in greater detail when I’ve got some more time. I agree with a lot of what you’ve got to say. I think the reason the characters sound believably Mormon to me is because I read their situation fundamentally differently than you do–it’s never addressed in the play, but Joe and Harper sound (very believably) to me like less-active Mormons. She mentions her disdain for “Utah talk, Mormon talk,” and creating that geographical and ideological separation suggests (again, quite believably, for me) that they’re fairly recently inactive (a change in behavior likely coinciding with their change in geography, something not at all uncommon in young members of the Church suddenly finding themselves responsible for their own church activity and involvement). I found their sense of isolation even more powerful, poignant, and believable simply because that sense of an external community is something that generally exists for Mormons–and something which is notably absent here. Joe is obviously written as a pretty dogmatic guy, but Harper doesn’t seem to be, and his (very Mormon) devotion to his wife coupled with his (Mormon) sexual self-loathing makes it pretty easy for me to accept that internal conflict and the means by which it is resolved–he is strict in his beliefs, but he doesn’t mind being away from church, because it makes him uncomfortable, and because, in Harper, he finds an acceptable excuse to lapse into inactivity (without, I would expect, admitting as much to himself).

        It’s entirely possible I’m projecting onto the piece, filling in the gaps with my own Mormonism, but I also know I’m not alone–in fact, the only Mormons I’ve specifically talked to about the play (admittedly, only a couple) seemed to have had a similar response (this random sampling is not at all widely representative, but does at least demonstrate that it’s not an entirely unique reading). That complexity may well have been at least partially accidental on Kushner’s part, but it’s hard for me to believe that all of it is–he takes a similar approach to all his characters, providing ideological dot-to-dots that create each of their largely fuzzy backstories. The result is a cast of vividly drawn characters in a series of psychologically and dramatically (if not always morally) ambiguous scenarios. And, while I’d agree that Kushner is using his own distinctive take on Mormonism to his own specific ends, I’d also suggest that that’s what any writer does, to some degree, whenever they write about anything.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          I agree that this is a plausible interpretation of Joe and Harper: as a recently-less-active couple, in connection with their move to the East Coast and the start of Joe’s career. I think it’s telling, though, that you have to supply the backstory yourself, and that there’s nothing in the play that signals that this wouldn’t be the typical experience of a young Mormon couple. I would also point out that there are some clues that Hannah is also marginally active at best, making her certainly a believable character, but also one who doesn’t do a good job of representing Mormon identity.

          There’s remarkably little of Mormonism as Mormons see it (as I see it) in the play. Which is kind of what I’m saying. To call Kushner’s plays informed about Mormonism — and particularly about the intersection of Mormonism and homosexuality — I think you do have to project things that aren’t actually there.

          Granted, I don’t think it was important for Kushner’s purposes to depict Mormonism in a truly realistic way. But this winds up more or less supporting Mahonri’s point, as I see it. Mormons and Mormonism in Angels in America have a presence that I think is more iconic than real. I daresay that a depiction of Jewish characters — or gay characters — that was equally superficial (with respect to their Jewishness or their homosexuality) would not have been accepted without comment in the way that Kushner’s depiction of Mormons was accepted.

          • Scott Parkin says:

            I like the play(s), but I think it uses the idea of Mormonism—or perhaps the popular conceptions about Mormonism—as social/political shorthand.

            In other words, it ride the cliche all the way to the end. Understanding that cliche and stereotype find foundation in real experience, they also tend to be 1) long out of date, and 2) specifically uncharitable as renderings.

            No one doubts either truism or resonance in individual details, but I would never recommend Angels as a way of understanding either Mormon social structures, moral constructs, or doctrinal foundations. Each detail may be defensible, but the whole picture felt distinctly non-representative—at least to me.

            But as everyone points out, the reason to see Angels is not to understand Mormonism, but rather to explore other issues using Mormon religion and conservative politics as foils (aka, symbols) for that other conversation.

  18. Jonathan Langford says:

    With respect to Scott’s latest comment: “But as everyone points out, the reason to see Angels is not to understand Mormonism, but rather to explore other issues using Mormon religion and conservative politics as foils (aka, symbols) for that other conversation.”

    My comment: Maybe. Except that I don’t think conservative politics is standing in for anything else. I think it’s the actual target. On the other hand, I do think that Mormonism is standing in for conservative American religion as a whole, but in a way that I see as fundamentally misrepresentative, at least of Mormonism and probably of American religion.

    • Davey says:

      I think, though, that Kushner allows us to fill in virtually everyone’s backstory in a similar way (Cohn being the only real exception)–and, after reading or seeing the play, I find I’ve contrived similar stories for Louis, Prior, and all the rest, based on my understanding of and experiences with Jewish religion and culture, the gay community, etc. Kushner is an insider in those communities, and an outsider to Mormonism, and I think it’s perfectly understandable (and, in my mind, forgivable) that he gets a few things wrong. I think to say it’s an accurate portrait of Mormonism you do have to project, but I think to say it’s generally believable or informed you simply have to connect some of the dots that Kushner provides–there are some that don’t fit, but, it seems to me, many more that do. But, again, I think it’s just a matter of agreeing to disagree on that, and I can certainly see where you guys are coming from. I do think, however, that we should be as charitable as readers as we expect others to be as writers–I personally don’t detect any malice in Kushner’s approach to Mormonism, just disagreement, which I think is fine, and perfectly respectful.

      I suppose I also don’t think it’s a shortcoming of the play if it isn’t representative of Mormonism–or Judaism, or liberalism, or conservatism, or homosexuality, or New York City, or anything, really. I would never recommend “Angels” as a way of understanding Mormon social structures, moral constructs, or doctrinal foundations either, but I think to hold that against it is a bit unfair when that’s not at all what it’s setting out to do. It’s a great mess of a play, and, like Parker and Stone’s musical, I think it’s worth pointing out the inaccuracies, exaggerations, and stereotypes, and worth offering a Mormon’s perspective and alternate take on a text that engages in Mormonism, but it seems to me like these playwrights are bearing their own testimonies, and, though I may disagree with them, I have a hard time reproaching them.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        I agree that representing Mormonism isn’t a central goal of Kushner’s play, though I’m a bit puzzled by your comment that it’s not a shortcoming if the play isn’t representative of anything. I suppose I tend to think that in order to succeed as a work of art, a story has to succeed in representing something. But perhaps we’re using different definitions of “representation.”

        I hope that my vigorous presentation of my own perspective doesn’t make you feel that yours is unwelcome. The fact that you and others obviously find that Angels in America does a better job of representing Mormon experience than I do provides an important counterpoint to my objections.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Something interesting. I just happened to be reading Christine Hutchison-Jones’s essay on Angels in America in Peculiar Portrayals, edited by Mark Decker and Mike Austin. She writes: “Both Hannah’s and Harper’s redemptions are foreshadowed in the play by their ongoing inability to ‘pass’ (in Joe’s words) as good Mormons…. These women escape the conservative culture surrounding their religion–and Kushner’s final condemnation–because they were already out of step with the social values of Mormon culture…. Why is it that Joe cannot be remade as almost every other character in Angels has been? In some sense, it is because he is a Mormon. To be specific, it is because he cannot, finally, repudiate the conservative values–both theological and political–that Mormonism represents in Kushner’s plays” (pp. 20-21). An interesting essay.

      • Wm Morris says:

        I don’t think it’s unfair to hold it against it — that’s how it has been received, as being indicative of Mormons and Mormonism, as saying something about us. And Kushner knew enough about Mormonism to make it the puppet for what he wanted to represent, but didn’t then give it the respect of accurate representation. He wants to use the history and the iconography and the vocabulary without having to worry about everything else. And, for me, that shows. And it interferes with my ability to appreciate it as a work of art. The fact that it relies on others ignorance to appreciate it as a work of art is a lapse, imo.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          I agree with William here. When you make as big a deal of a character’s religious foundation as a means of defining and explaining their behaviors (as Kushner does), you take on a responsibility for fairness and accuracy to those claims—or you accept that he’s playing fast and loose with the facts in order to make a point and becomes fair to criticize that fastness and looseness.

          I agree that Kushner was not trying to be fair—he had a viewpoint to show, and he used all the ideas, symbols, and shortcuts available to him to express that viewpoint, with popular notions about Mormon politics and religion as ready-made arrows in his quiver.

          But the moment he did that—the moment he chose to use a religious community as a symbol of all that was wrong in the world; the moment he described the only true path to salvation as leaving behind both the surface and deeper implications of that religion—he took a position and made a statement that made it fair to question both the accuracy and the presentation of that symbol. That’s inherent in the use of a real and active community as a symbol.

          I don’t buy the idea that you can say anything about anyone and not take responsibility for fairness or accuracy (pick one; it doesn’t have to be both) so long as you do it with enough style or panache. If you’re going to be a boor, own up to it and be at peace with the fact that you have been unfair for artistic reasons (and accept the attendant alienation of many in that community for your choice).

          He chose to subvert broad fairness/accuracy for sake of his narrative goals. That’s fine, and it is fully within his right as an artist to do so. That choice now makes it equally fair for the target of that unfairness to point out how he got it wrong—not as a matter of symbol, but as a matter of fact.

          It’s part of the game; when you use symbolic shorthand, you invite criticism of the shortcut and analysis of its use.

          Maybe Mormons should just accept the inaccuracies as artistic license and try to understand the larger point. I would argue that many of us have understood the larger point; we just don’t care for (or agree with) the other implications about our religion that come as a result of that symbolic use.

          For me it’s not an issue of outrage; it’s disappointment at being used (yet again) to represent ideas and viewpoints that are not mine, then being told I’m humorless for trying to point out that the stereotype is fundamentally unfair when it puts those words in my mouth.

          I believe artists can (and should) do better. It’s the difference between art and screed.

          • Wm Morris says:

            Right. I’m sick of the tired tropes. I don’t expect non-LDS artists and journalists and talking heads, etc., to not trot them out. I don’t find myself getting outraged. But I do find their use incredibly uninteresting.

  19. Chino Blanco says:

    Mormons have 50,000 missionaries out on the streets of the world in white shirts and ties. It’s not a stereotype, it’s a uniform. And if you’ve ever participated in an LDS pioneer trek reenactment, I’m guessing you’ve probably seen Mormon kids in “polygamist” bonnets. Oh well, at least the mix of vintage niggling and fresh hyperbole on offer here (“Mormon coon show” – seriously?) was good for a chuckle.

    By the way, if we give you a turn with the spotlight, do you promise to keep on making us laugh? The tone of this review suggests you’d be more likely to grab it and start beating us over the head with it.

    • Cam says:

      Wow after scanning through (no I didn’t read all the comments fully, just the feel) I was starting to really feel distress. Having read the whole review, first in hilarity, then for a second time a little disappointed by still seeing that mormon negligence which really kills it for most people I felt I needed to respond. Anyways I had a great review in mind, simple and funny, but Chino beat me, funny that his was right before mine. His was about the context of what I wanted to convey, especially since I was so turned off with the last “coon” show remark (but at least got a laugh out of it). How can you relate a depiction of this sort to Black Face Actors? I do like mormons a lot, I haven’t met any I didn’t, but Chino is calling it strait here, get over yourself if you think there is any comparing to stereotypes of black people, please. One Love.

  20. Randy Astle says:

    Great post and comments. Quick question for anyone: Does AML and/or Irreantum have any plans for reviewing this thing? I don’t know if it’s yet gotten a review from a serious Mormon critic. Thanks!

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I don’t know if anyone’s slated to do a review for Irreantum, but I’d welcome a review to be posted here on the blog. Feel free to contact me directly about it, at jonathan AT motleyvision DOT org.

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  22. James Goldberg says:

    Jana’s review mentions one thing I’d suspected: the stereotypes of Africans are WAY WORSE than the stereotypes of Mormons in the show.

    When I was a missionary in the former East Germany, we used to ask people “do you believe in God?” After the fairly consistent “No,” we’d ask “have you ever wanted to?”

    One evening I opened with the “do you believe in God” question with an African guy. He immediately answered: “I’m black. Of course I believe in God.” Apparently, the guy hadn’t realized atheism existed until he came to Germany for college.

    Sounds like the show takes an extremely condescending Western view of sub-Saharan Africa as universally screwed up and assumes that Africans would turn bitter and hiply cynical. Nope. That’s the American far left. Africa doesn’t deal with suffering that way.

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  24. Angela K. says:

    I take great issue with your comparisson of Mormon portrayal in Book of Mormon musical to the portrayal of black slaves in minstrelsy. While early members of the Church experienced severe persecution and prosecution for their beliefs, neither the persecution of our ancestors nor the mockery we may experience today in any way compares to the slavery, violence, abuse, and oppression that blacks in America have experienced over the last 4 centuries. The minstrel show both before and after the Civil War was, in part, intended to assuage whites of the guilt associated with placing their fellow human beings into slavery and denying them many of the basic rights of citizenship. It depicted blacks as content and overly happy in their underclass status. It was not in any way based on reality.

    The Mormon missionary portrayal in Book of Mormon, however, is satirical, something minstrelsy certainly was not. Additionally, it is a caricature– it exaggerates and distorts some of the most easily identifiable features and values of Mormons. If you looked in your extended group of Mormon friends and acquaintances, I’m certain you can find someone who is overly happy or naiive or homophobic or obsessed with certain doctrine or a blind follower.

    I think it is important always to look at art with a critical eye, but it is not socially responsible to draw comparissons that would diminish the plight of those who are still struggling for full civil rights within our society.

  25. Angela,

    Sorry, although I totally understand your sentiments, I must stand by my comments, as inflamatory as they may seem on the surface.

    First, let me say what I am comparing and what I am not comparing. I never once used the word “slavery.” Mormons have never been enslaved for their beliefs, thankfully. That is a plight which we certainly do NOT share in association with the African-American community. Never said we did. In comparing scars and hardships with the African-Americans or the Jewish community or other similar groups, they win hands down. I’m in no way disputing that. I’m not here to say who is more or less persecuted.

    For you to say that minstrelsy wasn’t satirical makes me scratch my head. Audiences of the time certainly wouldn’t agree with you. It makes me wonder if you either don’t understand what minstrel shows were or whether you don’t really understand what satire is. But I suppose you do, but just don’t see how it applies to this situation, or that you perceive satire to be a generally positive thing, so you don’t think that minstrel shows fit it that definition. I suppose I’m not a huge fan of satire in the first place, though, as it relies on exaggeration, and I prefer accuracy and nuance when depicting groups of people and their beliefs.

    I also think you underplay exactly how despised of a minority Mormons are these days. Sure, we’re not to the level of slavery or a Holocaust. Again, I’m purposely not making that comparison. Fortunately, whe have not had to bear those crosses which the African-American and Jewish communities have. But I certainly believe that there’s real prejudice there, even though people are sometimes embarassed to admit it. Ask Mitt Romney if his Mormonism is coming into play. Ask many an Evangelical or Baptist preacher whether we fit into the definition of the word “cult.” Ask many a secularist whether they believe Mormon beliefs are dangerous. When I’ve been outside of Utah, I’ve personally encountered a lot of prejudice when people discover I’m Mormon, from my students, from theatre professionals and professors at the KCACTF conference who should have known better, from random strangers. Maybe it’s especially acute in the theatre community which I work in, because of the perceived gridlock the Mormons and the homosexual community appear to be in, but I’ve certainly felt that prejudice bear down on me, and anyone who doesn’t recognize it obviously hasn’t scratched below the surface to see ugly it can really get.

    What I was comparing, however, was minstrelsy with how Mormons are treated in the media, in that it was a form of satirical entertainment that targeted targeted and mocked a minority. Although they grew up in the days of slavery (the 1830s is when they started showing up in American society), Minstrel shows lasted in mass popularity until 1910 and can even be seen in popular early films like White Christmas (1954!). At the time, they were seen as harmless entertainment and “satire” of African-American society. By some people, I’m sure they were even considered “affectionate” portrayals (the “Mammy” character seen so often in early portrayals of African-American society can certainly seem affectionate).

    In this, I believe there are some similarities to be drawn between minstrelsy and modern Mormon portrayals in the media. Parker and Stone definitely seem to “like” Mormons. They’ve gone out of their way to say that multiple times. They think our faith, though in their view deluded, makes good members of society. And I appreciate that, I really do, and in the end the exposure may even do us some real good. I probably will see the show, if I ever get the chance. But from what I’ve seen, heard and understand of the show (limited as it is, I admit that, although I have tried to research as thoroughly as I can), I think it’s at least the _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ of Mormonism. I love _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_, and it was trying to do (and did!) some real good for the African-American community in helping the larger American society care about the plight of the minority in their midst. But the book is rife with stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals which many African-Americans don’t appreciate. At worst, _The Book of Mormon: The Musical_ is a minstrel show, whose satirical edge will paint an unflattering and often inaccurate stereotype of Mormon beliefs that will be hard to disabuse for many years to come. I believe the show probably has many positive qualities… I may even like aspects of it when I see it. But I refuse to turn a blind eye to its failings when that time comes, just because it’s popular and has won a plethora of Tony awards.

  26. It’s interesting to see this non-Mormon author come to some of the same conclusions I did, even using the minstrel show comparison:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/amos-and-andy-and-the-book-of-mormon/2011/06/15/AGRlHPWH_blog.html

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