We got out of the cab at 7:55 pm that let us off on the corner of 8th and 49th rushing to the theater as we were trying to make sure we weren’t late to the curtain of Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon.” I had marginally heard about the show and knew it was a musical. I had a friend alert me to the soundtrack and I had had an inkling of remembrance of the song ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ but didn’t have enough of a frame of reference to make it make sense. When I heard the very familiar voice associated with Comedy Central’s “South Park” in the opening scene, I knew that we were in for a show. Elder Cunningham’s character was introduced and I knew that we were going to get something over the top.
As the two central characters were in the airport boarding Airfrique to Uganda (yes, the entire country, not a city), a woman came out to give them an “African” welcoming dressed like a stereotypical “bush” person that seemed like a relic from the early 20th century depictions of persons from the “dark continent.” She even had three whisk brooms to make a headdress. The next scene cut to something depicting a slum village and I knew that this was NOT going to go well for my friends and I.
We were treated to the blunt stereotypes of Africa, as a monolithic continent, through the eyes of white privileged and reified as satire or parody. With images of warlords, and even mammy-esque characters being shown on the stage, I couldn’t help but wonder what time warp I had been dragged through when I walked through the front doors of the Eugene O’Neill theater. The complimentary beverages we obtained for the second act helped ease the pain. But, the depiction of Johnnie Cochran in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” was indicative of deep-seated beliefs.
And the whole time, the audience laughed. Old people, young people, in between, and even children. The language was vulgar, the names of cast members were deplorable, with gross sex acts discussed and what many would call “cooning” on stage by the black actors the show was absolutely unfathomable that it got green lighted. But then, once we left the theater rushing to make dinner reservations the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is America and anything is liable to sell.
One of the after dinner and cab ride home conversations was about what was considered entertainment. One of my friends was arguing that what we saw was not entertainment, but sheer racism on stage. I made the argument that it was entertainment because the show was showing through white eyes how many in western culture still view Africa: as a monolithic continent with no distinction between north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the west coast of Africa and east Africa, the tribal differences, the fact that major, urban and industrialized cities are on the continent–even in sub-Saharan Africa. For many the image of “spears and sticks” is synonymous with a whole continent. Egypt is never seen as part of Africa, and that small nod is evidenced by the fact that the U.S. Census allows those with North African nationalities (Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia) to claim “white.” We saw what the white Other sees all the time.
For them there was no deeper meaning. A big black woman in rag clothing walking like Miss Sophia through the field didn’t invoke images of mammy or anything historical feelings, it was just entertainment. The fact that the warlord general’s name couldn’t be printed in newspapers, let alone the Playbill, meant nothing to anyone, it was just a name, and it was just entertainment. The show brought to bear the serious issue of AIDS and genital mutilation and made it the butt of many jokes that garnered much laughter. It was rude, it was crass, it was the equivalent of a fart joke told by preadolescent boys. The sheer volume of sins that this show violated when it came to political correctness would probably make actors at Fox News even blanch a bit, but by the second act it was like watching comedy of errors. The show had the comedic effect of the ipecac scene in Family Guy: it was so gross, so vulgar, so insulting and so over the top, you had to laugh at it. And therein lies the problem.
Far too many followers, however, have given the show a pass, claiming that because there are no limits to their attacks, at least Parker, Stone and Lopez are “equal opportunity offenders.” But the utter lack of originality in “The Book of Mormon,” combined with an often downright mean-spiritedness, drags the show to unforeseen depths. To those who insist we look beyond the vulgarity, there simply is no there there. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and others in the tradition had powerful points to make. The delinquents of this creative team are far from the inheritors of that mantle.
Theodore Mahne of the New Orleans Times-Picayune makes the astute observation about comedic satire as a means of a tradition that makes powerful points against larger society. “The Book of Mormon” hardly falls in that vein. What my friends and I watched was something worthy of a “South Park” episode. Where the drawings are intentionally one-dimensional as means of showing the ways in which American culture can be so jacked up at times. “South Park” has operated under the protection of “equal opportunity offenders” and that was illuminated when the late Isaac Hayes quit the show when the writing decided to take on Scientology of whom Hayes was an adherent. It reeked of the playground bully mantra of being able to dish it out but refusing to take it. The public, for the most part, sided with “South Park” as having the moral high ground. But, just last week, 12 people were killed for what was called satire and protected under the fundamental understanding of “free speech” and I was forced to ask the question, then who’s paying for it?
What makes satire so powerful is that it is able to take the icons of society and profane them with the clear intent to make a political or social point. When comedians or political cartoonists satirize the current or past president they do so because it humanizes them. It knocks them off the pedestal of being untouchable. The same exists for satire of Catholicism or the Pope, this can happen because there is over one billion Catholics in the world and the satire of one comedian in one venue doesn’t have the power to overwhelm the majority; there are more than enough dominating images that positively depict the Roman Catholic church and the Pope. The magazine “Charlie Hebdo” made the decision to pick on the so-called little guy. In the social and political climate of France, the Muslim population is not the majority and they don’t hold any seats of governmental power. What may have been intended as satire comes off as vulgar and mean-spirited. In fact, it reeks of a global sense of white hegemony that allows a European power structure to “other” a minority population that acts incredulous when the other side cries being offended.
“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
But recently the Vatican and four prominent French imams issued a joint declaration that denounced the attacks but also urged the media to treat religions with respect.
Francis, who has urged Muslim leaders in particular to speak out against Islamic extremism, went a step further when asked by a French journalist about whether there were limits when freedom of expression meets freedom of religion.
Francis insisted that it was an “aberration” to kill in the name of God and said religion can never be used to justify violence.
Many people around the world have defended the right of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in the wake of the massacre by Islamic extremists at its Paris offices and subsequent attack on a kosher supermarket in which three gunmen killed 17 people.
“There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others,” he said. “They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.”
The concept of being “equal opportunity offenders” is a privilege afforded by whiteness in this country because only would that privilege be given to white people. As I ruminated over “The Book of Mormon” in the hours after leaving the theater, I figured that I had watched a live episode of “South Park” and I didn’t like it. I watch that cartoon easily enough, laughing, and rationalizing that “they do this to everyone” so I don’t get fully insulted when Token makes an appearance. The difference is that “South Park” is on a small screen, that has equal access to all who own a laptop or a TV (which is most everybody these days) and not a live-stage play with tickets costing nearly $500 playing to a mostly white audience. Think about who is going to that show. Average black and brown people aren’t going to pay that much money for tickets to a Broadway show. (There are other Broadway shows that are cheaper than that if one just simply wants to go see a show.)
The ways in which racism and xenophobia are so utterly pervasive in this world should give a bit of pause to the ways in which we as a people would like to digest information such as this. If one has to mount the “free speech/expression” argument to justify what was said, it stands to reason that someone was viciously offended by it. As someone who identifies as Christians, we are the largest religious community in the world with approximately 2 billion people identifying as such with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews following in that order — that means that Christians are the dominating force. Aside from Middle Eastern countries, the Islamic faith is not a major demographic force where it’s followers occupy major seats of power and influence. The whole point of satire is to critique the powers-that-be, not caricature the marginalized.
Free speech in the United States provided decades of justification for “blackface” in this country where African Americans were caricatured, lampooned, derided for the sake of advertisement to sell products. All the way from Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben products that still exist to other images that are sickening to today’s public. But it’s free speech right? Charlie Hebdo took on an icon, that of the Prophet Muhammad, which contrary to Christian iconography, is never to be depicted. Perhaps in a day in age when America is well entrenched in its latest race conversation following Ferguson, one can’t help but see the similarities and stories of how people of color and other ethnic minorities and Europe are fairing. While it has escaped much of the public’s memory, it was only in 2011 that London was besieged by riots following a police shooting of an unarmed black man in Tottenham. Yet and still, it seems as though certain communities of whites, both domestically and globally, act with impunity when it comes to comments, actions and even response to the fallout.
At this point for me, it’s hard to say that the journalists at a place like Charlie Hebdo are racists. I’m not willing to make that charge at the feet on those individuals because to do so places them in a category of evil that could justify their murders. I will not do that. I will say that they are agents of institutional racism that blindly accepts “white as right” and the standard-bearer for which all other concepts of cultural norms are to be understood. Rather than recentering the narrative from a Islamic point of view, it will always remain that of a western and Europeanized (whiteness) center. That inability and intransigence of holding the center from that of whiteness allows the conversation to always favor “free speech/expression” and paint Muslims worldwide with the broad brush of “radical Islam.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with white people, there is something wrong with whiteness – a system that consistently privileges and centers the experience of those of European descent over others. People need to be liberated enough to level criticism at the racism that whiteness produces; mourn for the deaths of journalists at Charlie Hebdo as well as call them out for their xenophobic political cartoons that fetishize a revered person in the faith of millions around the world. Not to mention sounding the clarion call about Boko Haram in Nigeria and the mass slaughter of innocents.
I wanted to walk out of the theater during intermission at “The Book of Mormon,” but I didn’t want to be rude to the person who purchased our tickets–not to mention, where was I going to go. But it was one of those weird moments in blackness where my friends and I were but a few speckles of pepper in a sea of overpowering salt; salty enough to render all life forms dead if placed in water. Watching images of people with my similar levels of melanin as I perform, maybe even “coon” on stage was a reality I was not ready for, and one that it seemed white people in the audience had no problems with at all. It was weird, it was uncomfortable, it was disconcerting, it made me feel black. I was fully aware of my blackness. Not just my skin color, but of who I was, my essence, my sheer being. I didn’t know if I should be ashamed, cower in a corner, should I laugh fully and blend in as best I could with the rest of the audience; divorce myself from the body present in a theater and the spiritual existence of being black like an atom splitting in two and just prepare for the atomic explosion at the core of my protai ousiai?
When the show was done, I walked out, just as Black as ever.
Keep it uppity and keep it radical, JLL