The Book of Mormon, questioning the representation of Uganda in the musical:
In recent years, burgeoned by efforts to decolonise education, literature and general popular culture, we’ve seen an increase in critical engagement with classics and their depiction of what is considered as the racialised “other”.
These include Shakespeare’s plays Othello (1603) and The Tempest (1611), Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) and Camus’ novel The Stranger (1942). However, what is still needed is a greater scrutiny of plays which are currently running — plays which are offering up diversity and inclusion as a facade, and by doing so reinforcing racial stereotypes, rather than combatting them.
You might have heard of The Book of Mormon, a Broadway musical first staged in 2011 and still celebrated today. When I went to watch it, I knew nothing about it other than that it was hailed as “the best musical of all time” and had won a cabinet of Tony Awards. My analysis comes from the fact that I am African myself working on colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial issues. Therefore, the musical was racist rather than humorous to me.
From the outset, Uganda is represented as an undesirable location. Upon hearing their destination, the two white missionaries who are sent to Uganda are not only shocked but also unhappy and jealous of their counterparts with missions in other countries like France, Norway, and Japan.
As soon as they arrive, their belongings are stolen by armed men who terrify them and the whole village, which goes back to what Edward Said (1978) referred to that “the East has always signified danger and threat”. People of the village also laugh when the missionaries ask for the police, which mirrors the dichotomy of order and disorder, developed and underdeveloped.
The staging highlights a gloomy yellowish and dull green landscape, mud huts, dirt , and other disturbing images (a cast member pulling a dead animal around the village, another one pulling a wheel around, and a skeleton of another dead animal kept outside in the open).
These images correlate one of the Mormons saying, “there are a lot of disturbing things in Uganda”. These images differ from the residence of the Mormons in the village with light, a colourful sofa, a board, and books with bright colours around them. This depiction accentuates a dichotomy of “civilised”, “uncivilised”, and “primitive, developed” that implicitly insinuates how the “racial Others” and “white civilisers” are seen and understood.
Other problematic aspects of the play are the stories of rape (raping babies to cure AIDS), circumcision of women, AIDS among the people, militia threatening the villagers, poverty, and violence. However, it did not seem that people were aware of the stereotypes and the racist depiction of people from Uganda while the stories of AIDS among other issues made people laugh in the room.
So how is this depiction of Africa, precisely Uganda, different from other works and depictions that postcolonial and decolonial studies have tried to deconstruct? How is it different from the negative representation of Africa and Africans in Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness that the postcolonial author Chinua Achebe criticised for its racist illustration of Africa and Africans?
The theatre plays an important role in the quest for decolonisation. The Theatre can have a positive impact by raising awareness, educating the public and bringing people together while addressing past and present inequalities.
However, it can also have the opposite effect by emphasising certain stereotypes. Some shows problematically enforce labels using comedy. This idea is referred to as “Ironic racism” which has been criticised in the media for tolerating shows’ absurd racist tropes by actors and comedians.
Jason Osamede Okundaye discussed ironic racism in comedy considering it naïve and dangerous. What is alarming is that racism often hides behind humour. Thus, there are limits to humour especially when it is racist. Moreover, the world is moving towards decolonisation, which means speaking against stereotypes and labels attached and following certain people (in the play, Africa) from the past.
White Missionaries and the colonial image of Africa in the musical:
In colonial times, missionaries were sent to colonised lands to spread their religion and educate the “uncivilised Africans,” while colonised people were seen and portrayed as “primitive”. Frantz Fanon highlighted the role played by the missionaries in colonised lands as calling to the white man’s ways rather than to God’s ways (Fanon, 1967). In the musical, one of the missionaries taught false information to the villagers because he had not read the book himself.
The people of the village are portrayed as naïve and simple-minded in accepting the new religion even when the information communicated by one of the missionaries is an invention. For instance, one of the Mormons convinced the people of the village to have coitus with frogs to treat AIDS. Therefore, the dichotomy thinking of civilised and uncivilised, victim and saviour, white and black (one of the characters was referred to as Nicotine), East and West, order and disorder, developed and underdeveloped are strongly and directly accentuated throughout the musical.
The white missionaries are portrayed as the rescuers of the village and its people from their “primitive uncivilised” ways. One of the characters said “the Book of Mormon will do those Africans a lot of good”. The message implies that the two white missionaries and their book are bringing a positive message and way of life to Africans, and that they need it. This mirrors the past through the role played by white missionaries in colonised countries reinforcing the stereotypes that have long followed Africa and Africans.
While the show title centres around the Book of Mormon calling it a religious satire musical, the story centres around the racist depiction of Africa. It emphasises colonial legacies of a set of stereotypes attached to Africa in general, and Uganda specifically (Aids, violence, superstitious beliefs, poverty, rape, primitiveness) that the “white man” can change, and which the show reinforces. It is the image of Africa through the lens of colonialism, which Edward Said (1978) refers to as the “recurring image of the other” (p4).
The show could take place in France, Norway, or Japan. Nevertheless, there is a deliberate depiction of an African country, stressing colonial stereotypes, not challenging them. It was not France or Japan or Norway that was laughed at in the show; it was Uganda.
The arguments presented in this article serve to raise awareness about the reproduction of racial stereotypes in the theatre and decolonise these reproductions. Decolonisation is about depicting and speaking about these issues that are racist, dangerous, and provoking. It is not only the show, but also the laughs across the room and the silence around its racist messages and depiction of people in Africa which is dismissed by people saying “it is a joke”.
Decolonising the theatre means educating ourselves about the past and using it to raise awareness. It is acknowledging how the past, shaped by colonisation, still has an impact on today’s national and international landscape between “the West and the rest”. The theatre can and should be used to combat stereotypes — not reinforce them — and change the colonial narrative about locations and people outside the Western world, decentring white supremacy.
Decolonisation is not only for academics to tackle but also for everyone. Decolonization of the theatre “rests with the people, the theatre audiences”. Depicting and speaking about racism is not only for academics as well as it is for everyone, everywhere to reach a level of decolonisation.
Who is Edward Said?
Edward Said (1935-2003) is one of the pillars of postcolonial studies. He authored several books that are still the starting points for colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial theory. Some of his most celebrated books are Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993).
Concepts and terms:
The dichotomy references in the article come from the representation of the East and the West, self and other, orient and occident in Edward Said (1978), orientalism, as well as the dichotomy of coloniser and colonised others in the work of Franz Fanon. This dichotomy thinking underpins the colonial system at the time as well as the colonial legacies of our time.
Decolonisation’s definition in general can be a contested concept that bridges different foci from Frantz Fanon (1967) questioning the colonial system and structure to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1981) writing on decolonising language and the use of colonial language to Chinweizu decolonising the literature and the mind (1980/1987). However, the definition used here is thinking about decolonisation as a “way of thinking about the world which takes colonialism, empire, and racism as its empirical and discursive objects of study” Bhambra et al, 2018, p.2
- For further readings on the subject please check:
- Ben Luxon (2018) The Book of Mormon is as racist as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (2002) The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature.
- Chinua Achebe (1975) An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness https://genius.com/Chinua-achebe-an-image-of-africa-racism-in-conrads-heart-of-darkness-excerpt-annotated
- Claire G Harris (2019) “The Book of Mormon Musical Is Extremely Racist”
- “Colonial Legacies” https://spheresofinfluence.ca/colonial-legacies/
- Dane Kennedy (2004) “Decolonization: A Very Short Introduction”
- Decolonisation inpractice The strangers case https://www.archives.org.uk/news/decolonising-in-practice-the-strangers-case
- Edward Said (1978) Orientalism.
- Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu(2018) Decolonising the University.
- Herb Scribner (2020) “It’s Time to Talk About Race and ‘The Book of Mormon’ Musical”
- Johnston, A. (2003) “The British Empire, Colonialism, and Missionary Activity,” in Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800–1860.
- Udengwu, Ngozi (2018) “Decolonize or Else – Negotiating Decolonization through Popular Theatre”
Sarah Elmammeri is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool working on refugee and border policies in Europe from a postcolonial perspective. She tackles issues surrounding the othering of refugees and asylum seekers at the level of external, internal, and everyday borders in Europe. She is interested in issues surrounding migration in general and refugee and border policies, specifically colonial, postcolonial and decolonial theory, inclusion, and diversity.