John Mark Reynolds
Amos and Andy and The Book of Mormon
The creators of the play Book of Mormon have created the Amos and Andy for the South Park set. We may laugh, but our grandchildren will shudder as decent folk do at “wits” of the last century whose favorite dance was to “jump Jim Crow.”
The parts of the Book of Mormon I have seen are as innovative as a Newsies revival and as funny as the cruel, tasteless jokes told by an inebriated coworker at a Christmas party. The difference is that the coworker might sober up in the morning, but the mindless mockery that also gave us South Park will continue.
After all, the theater establishment toasted the two with Tony’s and the insiders would never cheapen themselves by rewarding a play for picking on a minority religion loathed in the theater community or behave like decadent Romans horrified by a growing moral minority comforting the libertines by mocking the moral.
I cannot know for sure without seeing the entire play.
If we assume the play a brilliant satire with PR unfortunate enough to release only the cruel and facile bits, then we are still left with two unfortunate truths about this play. First, the writers are cowards. They inflict pain and mockery on those already despised while going soft on the tired assumptions of their rich and powerful patrons. Second, in a pluralistic society they have targeted a group already misunderstood and discriminated against.
I am no Mormon, but I have witnessed bigotry and ignorance directed against this American community. The LDS Church is placed in the difficult position of seeing their most sacred beliefs mocked in a nation that murdered their prophet in a shameful lynching. Broadway has given aid and comfort to the mob of ignorant folk who know nothing of modern Mormonism outside of their prejudices.
No wonder Mormon politicians like Jon Huntsman, bob and weave when asked by bigots if they are part of the LDS church. Few of us have the Mitt Romney courage to stand by our people when the cost is high. For his steadfastness, Romney was linked to the play in a Newsweek parody cover that left only his profile, but a profile in religious courage.
I write this in Istanbul, a city awash in lies told about religious minorities by powerful interests. Here Christians and Jews face “amusing” pop cultural stereotypes, some quite clever, but a wicked cleverness that feeds hatreds. Against this my Turkish friends fight for a respect that goes “beyond tolerance” and voluntarily restrain themselves from inciting prejudice to score cheap gains. It is the only hope for a peaceful republican future for this land.
The same is true for the United States. Theater has an ugly record of pandering to the prejudices of ticket buyers. Minstrel shows produced catchy music and made New Yorkers laugh, but they were shameful and wrong.
The Book of Mormon is a minstrel show for our present age with Mormons as the joke.
Ugly plays did not by themselves produce the Klan or keep some Americans from voting for African-Americans. Original sin was enough for that, but minstrel shows did give racism an artistic and comedic whitewash. When Americans were hurt by the cruel stereotypes, they were told it was “just a joke” and were painted as petty for not laughing along.
Of course no group has been as cruelly treated as African-Americans, but Mormons have a history of being persecuted. They have been exiled in their own land, but have returned unfailing devotion to our Constitution.
This new play will pander to our prejudices and treat our Mormon neighbors as we would never wish to be treated. Some Americans will allow it to confirm unthinking prejudice, while cowardly Mormons will applaud it hoping for crumbs of respectability.
Meanwhile the actual Mormons in our midst will keep paying taxes, making strong families with children, and dying to protect the rights of a decayed and decadent theater “elite.”
I stand in solidarity with my Mormon neighbors.