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.