musicals and missionaries

I’ve had the opportunity recently to talk with a couple of writer friends about my experiences as an LDS missionary in Kenya. You can read their resultant articles online: “Comparing Broadway’s ‘Mormon’ Hit to LDS Missionary Reality” on jweekly.com and “African Saints find hope in the gospel (and perform Book of Mormon productions of their own)” on ldsliving.com.

As implied in the article titles, the interest in my experience has partly come about with the recent Broadway opening of The Book of Mormon, a critically-acclaimed musical which tells the story of two Mormon missionaries encountering life in rural Uganda. There seems to be a lot of curiosity among Latter-day Saints about how realistically the show, imagined by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, portrays their Church and missionaries.

I haven’t seen The Book of Mormon, but I did listen to the entire soundtrack before these recent interviews (this is, by the way, far more exposure to the musical than I would recommend for 95% of the people I know, due to the very pervasive and very strong language). My thoughts on how well what I heard seemed to correspond with my own experience are summed up pretty well in these articles.

The one issue I haven’t heard much discussion on yet is how accurately Africa, and rural Uganda specifically, is portrayed. It seems that the Africans in the story are caricatured just as much as the missionary characters. As I’ve been quoted, it is probably unreasonable—paradoxical, even—to expect strict accuracy in a Broadway musical, but it’s interesting to me how much I’ve heard the one portrayal questioned, but not the other. This is most likely because I live among a lot more Mormons than Africans these days; a quick Google search does turn up some conversation on the subject, in posts like these:

Overall, I feel like I should reiterate: as long as people aren’t looking to be educated about religions and cultures through this musical, then I don’t much care that it exists and that there are people who are entertained by it (because we’re all such conscientious media consumers, right?). Conceptually I can see the appeal. There is definite truth to the statement that “everyone’s faith is weird” (see Community Season 1 Episode 12, “Comparative Religion“), and western American “Mormon culture” deserves at least an occasional jab. Despite there being some real comedic possibilities there, though, despite the fact that there have been some legitimately good laughs had at the expense of us Mormons in the past, The Book of Mormon musical just doesn’t strike me as being all that funny in comparison.
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2 responses to “musicals and missionaries

  1. This is an interesting perspective—thanks for posting! I’ve been following this from a general media and PR perspective, and this is a different take that I like. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m going to link to your post from my blog.

  2. Wow, Jay. This is great! Thanks for giving me so much to think about. :)

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