The Book of Mormon and Ritual Theatre

This month, I had the chance to see the outstanding musical The Book of Mormon as it stopped in Louisville on its current national tour. Having long been a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s television and film work, I knew I woud enjoy the play, but found it to be even funnier and more heartfelt than I expected. (slightly off-topic discussion points about the play will follow at the bottom of this post.) What I certainly did not expect was a thematic overlap between the musical and my own work on ritual theatre.

In the play, Mormon missionaries set up shop in a small village in Uganda; much humor is derived from the inability of one missionary, Elder Cunningham, to correctly tell the stories within the Book of Mormon. His versions of the tales involve the starship Enterprise, Yoda, hobbits, and many more extra-textual characters. Joseph Smith is more of a superhero, less of a prophet, and dies of dysentery rather than gunshot wounds. The villagers love the stories, internalize them, and ask to be baptized into the Mormon faith.

As eager new converts, the villagers put on a play for the visiting Mission President which tells the story of Joseph Smith in their own words, and with their own music, costumes, and props. In the song “Joseph Smith American Moses,” the villagers enact a type of ritual theatre, performing and rehearsing the Mormon stories they’ve heard. It does not impress the Mission President, but the villagers use aspects of ritual to show their understanding and appreciation of the Joseph Smith story. Such aspects include special costumes, chanting, movement, and collective interpretation of texts or stories with significant spiritual meaning. (It may be helpful to note that “Joseph Smith American Moses” directly references the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence from The King and I.)

While this song in the play in itself is interesting to me from a research perspective, the entire musical really engages with notions of ritual, as it is a key component of the Mormon faith–something I hadn’t considered prior to seeing the play. For example, both acts of The Book of Mormon open with tableaus from Joseph Smith’s life (acted out by the cast, but with dialogue dubbed by Trey Parker) that are inspired by the famous Hill Cumorah Pageant, an important ritualized performance of Joseph Smith’s life and stories from the Book of Mormon. The Pageant is an enormous event, and a highlight for many Mormon families. Wikipedia notes that the Pageant “runs for seven nights in late July and attracts approximately 35,000 viewers annually.”

Thus, the ritualized enactment of religious or spiritual material in the United States is not limited to the Black Arts Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, or other areas I’m currently researching. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or LDS Church) prioritizes ritual drama as well. Whether this will find its way into my own work remains to be seen, but finding another significant instance of ritual drama was an exciting new discovery for me.

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As promised, here are a few other random thoughts about the Book of Mormon musical, and the current (2014) national touring production I saw:

*I was surprised that in the prologues to each act, Trey Parker voiced all of the characters, even Jesus. Devotees of South Park will recall that Matt Stone usually voices Jesus. My husband made the point that the Jesus character in the play is somewhat different than South Park’s easygoing Jesus, so perhaps that explained the change.

*In the song “All-American Prophet,” cast members representing Mormon pioneers are dressed suspiciously like the cast members at the end of Parker and Stone’s Cannibal! The Musical, who dance in that film’s final scene. I am still undecided as to whether that is my own association as a fan or if it was at all purposeful.

*When Elder Price has a nightmare that takes him to hell (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”), the play’s version of hell is virtually identical to that portrayed in South Park, with the same villains (Hitler, Johnny Cochran). Satan is a bit different, but overall, Parker and Stone seem to have a rather consistent vision of what hell must be like.

*Alexandra Ncube (as Nabulungi) and Grey Henson (as Elder McKinley) were two real standouts in the cast.

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