Follow by Email

Monday, August 15, 2011

Broadway, Memphis (the Musical), and The Book of Mormon (the Musical)

I recently returned from a family vacation to New York (and DC) where amongst other things we saw the Broadway play, Memphis: A New Musical, which won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. It tells the story of Huey Calhoun, who becomes the first white DJ in Memphis to play black music on the radio and TV, and Felicia, an African-American singer who hopes to become a star.  Somewhat predictably, Huey and Felicia fall in love, but because of existing laws and prejudice, they can't get married. Nevertheless, people learn of their relationship, and they suffer the consequences. They soldier on

The play is roughly based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey who was one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s (he was also the first to play Elvis Presley's debut record, "That's All Right/Blue Moon Of Kentucky," on the radio). Interestingly, it was first staged in 2003-04 at both the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts and the TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California before it opened on Broadway on October 19, 2009. Its national tour begins in October; if you have a chance, see it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the play is its positive portrayal of people of faith, at least African-American Christianity. Some of the play's gospel songs are among the best I've ever heard. This is somewhat in contrast to the 2011 Tony Award winning musical, The Book of Mormon, which satirizes organized religion in general and the Mormon church in particular although it portrays Mormon missionaries in a positive light, as well-meaning and optimistic, if not a little naive and un-worldly. A central theme of the play is that many religious stories are rigid and out of touch but that religion can do a lot of good as long as it's taken metaphorically and not literally. The Mormon church issued a "measured" response to the play. Its head of public affairs, Michael Otterson, remarked that "parody isn't reality, and it's the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously—if they leave a theater believing that Mormons really do live in some kind of a surreal world of self-deception and illusion." He then went on to outline various humanitarian efforts that Mormon missionaries have been involved with in Africa in recent years.

Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder how a play that satirized Islam would be greeted. Would it win nine Tony Awards? Would it receive critical acclaim? Would it elicit a "measured" response? Would anybody be even willing to produce such a play? My sense is that the answer to all of these questions is "No" (although I'd love to be proven wrong) in spite of the fact that the parallels between Islam and Mormonism are remarkable. To wit:
  • Both Mohammad and Joseph Smith claim to have been visited by an angel who told them that the existing religious traditions had distorted the truth and were being called upon to reform the existing forms of religion in their respective communities
  • Both received new revelations that eventually became regarded as scripture (i.e., the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon)
  • Both initially shared these new revelations with only friends and family before proclaiming them to a wider audience
  • Both were persecuted for doing so (Joseph Smith was actually killed)
  • Both are referred to as "The Prophet" by their respective traditions
  • Both took multiple wives
  • Both religious traditions hold very traditional views considering the role of women (there are, of course, exceptions)
  • Both religious traditions ascribe to a relatively conservative morality (in fact they are quite similar)
There are, of course, differences between the two faith traditions, but I suspect that the reason why we can satirize one and not the other is that it's culturally acceptable to make fun of Mormons but not of Muslims. Don't misunderstand. I'm not advocating making fun of Muslims. But if it isn't appropriate to make fun of Muslims, then why, pray tell, is it OK to make fun of Mormons? I think its hypocritical. I think it's wrong. I think it's an example of political correctness run amok.

Some years ago the historian Philip Jenkins wrote a book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, in which he argued (with considerable supporting data) that offenses against Roman Catholics, unlike those against groups such as Judaism and Islam, are rarely censored and never considered hate crimes (if you're wondering, Jenkins is not a Roman Catholic). I can't help but wonder if Mormons should be added to his list.

No comments:

Post a Comment