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It’s time to talk about race and ‘The Book of Mormon’ musical

Josh Gad, a member of the original Broadway cast, said he doesn’t know if the show could open today and get the same positive response

“The Book of Mormon” musical will return to Broadway on Nov. 5 — with some possible changes.
“The Book of Mormon” musical.
Broadway Across America

I thought I knew what I was getting into the first time I saw “The Book of Mormon” musical in 2017.

I’m not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I have close friends who are. I knew the musical is critical of believers and the church itself, and I was expecting to see a lot of stereotypical jabs.

And I did. The musical — which tells the story of two Latter-day Saint missionaries who travel to Africa — includes all the non-swear swears (fetch! flip!), the “Hello!” introductions at the door and even the love of Disney that are associated with Latter-day Saint culture. (Though the musical gets it wrong by saying Disney World and Orlando are more important than Disneyland and California.) I could pick out all the moments my Latter-day Saint friends and colleagues would dislike. Some of the jokes fell flat for me, since the musical takes an unnecessary swipe at the church and its culture. I felt for my friends who would definitely feel the harshness of the insults.

But “The Book of Mormon” was about what I expected. I’m pretty familiar with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the musical. I’ve been a big fan of their comedy “BASEketball” and “South Park, so I was expecting profanity, irreverence, and loads of irony and sarcasm.

But what shocked me most was how the musical, which debuted in 2011, handled race — particularly its portrayal of Africans. While I knew it skewered religion and insulted Latter-day Saints, I hadn’t heard anything about racial concerns surrounding the musical.

It felt inappropriate. It didn’t feel right. And apparently, I wasn’t alone.

As rumors swirl of “The Book of Mormon” getting a movie and as it continues to make runs throughout the country, there’s a question to consider here, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against racial injustice: Will the Grim Reaper soon ring the doorbell of “The Book of Mormon” musical?

A group of missionaries in “The Book of Mormon Musical.”
A group of missionaries in “The Book of Mormon Musical.”
Joan Marcus

The musical’s future has been the subject of recent discussion. Josh Gad — one of the original cast members — appeared on PeopleTV’s Couch Surfing, where he talked about the possibility of the Broadway play getting a film version, similar to how “Hamilton” received a film version that debuted on Disney Plus.

Gad, though, said “The Book of Mormon” would be tough to introduce in the modern world.

“I think you have to adjust with the times,” he said. “I don’t know that that show could open today and have the same open-armed response that it did then. It’s not to say that it’s any less significant or wonderful or incredible a musical; I just think it’s the nature of art to adapt. I would certainly hope that with a future adaptation there would be that growth. Because I think it’s a cool opportunity for growth.”

Those comments are vague, and they don’t say much about what the musical is adapting for. Is it the portrayal of Latter-day Saints? Or is it the racial stereotypes of Africans?

I was on a search to find out what Gad might have meant by his comments, so I called up Cheryl Hystad, a retired attorney who once wrote an opinion piece on the musical for The Baltimore Sun.

Hystad’s piece highlighted the show’s racist portrayals of Africans and the lack of media attention surrounding it.

“The fact that most reviewers have not mentioned the blatant racism in the show, points to a subtler issue, a pervasive anti-Africa bias to which white Americans have been inculcated so thoroughly that few seem to have concerns about the show’s portrayal of Africans. The mere mention in the show that the missionaries are being sent to Uganda is a joke, at which the white audience laughs, as in the lucky ones are being sent to Europe, but the unfortunate are being sent to (god-forbid!) Africa,” she wrote.

The play’s conclusion “plays fully into the white savior complex — that whites are superior to Blacks and that only we can save Blacks from themselves. This is a storyline that white America apparently has a hard time giving up,” she wrote.

One year after writing her piece, Hystad feels the same. And she considered Gad’s comments to be about the racist stereotypes, not the way the play portrays Latter-day Saints or their church.

Gad was right to say that “The Book of Mormon” wouldn’t receive the same applause today as it did when it first opened,” Hystad said.

“I assume that because of everything that’s happening right now with the systemic racism in our country, that a lot of corporations are looking at their logos and people are really kind of rethinking some things. So I assumed ... his response was to that kind of rethinking of how we look at some of these issues.

“It was good that he said he didn’t think the show would be able to open today, and have the same kind of response. I would hope that’s true. I would think that people would look at it differently today than they did when it first opened. Just because I really feel like the Black Lives Matter movement has done a lot to open a lot of people’s eyes to some of the insidious racism that we see in our country.”

Here is a scene from The Book of Mormon musical.
A scene from “The Book of Mormon” musical.
Joan Marcus

Hystad said she received emails from people in London, New Zealand, New York and Australia about how they thought the play would be critical of Latter-day Saints, but were surprised to find the harsh take on Africa.

Hystad said “The Book of Mormon” producers have an opportunity to change the musical since everything remains locked down because of the coronavirus pandemic. She said the producers could “really look critically at the racist aspects of it and try to figure out a way to really counter that narrative.”

“We’ve had this narrative in our country for as long it has been around — that Black people are lazy they’re not smart, they’re somehow not as good as white people. I mean that’s what Black Lives Matters is fighting against — this kind of undertone, under narrative of everything that we have in our country,” she said. Producers, she said, can look at that and try to rewrite that narrative.

So how would she fix the musical? Well, Hystad said she’s an attorney — not a Broadway producer. So she might not have the best ideas. But the show could benefit from highlighting the beauty and creativity in Africa rather than focusing on racial stereotypes.

“The Book of Mormon” needs to change, she said, if it plans to continue its run. The play may lose favor with viewers if the narratives don’t adjust.

“I think the show’s going to die out at some point soon if they don’t do something to kind of address some of these issues,” she said. “So that would be maybe an impetus for them to rethink it and redo it while they have all this time off right now.”