Mormon Show Paints Africa Down

Watching The Book of Mormon recently was an ordeal I had not expected.

It's not simply that despite the acclaim it has received -- hailed as greatest musical of the century -- there was not a single memorable tune such as I'd heard in West Side Story, Cats or other great musicals.

Nor was it the carefully treaded line between ridiculing the Mormon religion and showing it enough respect to avoid litigation.

Nor was it the comic book characters written by a comic book creator from South Park -- a cartoon that I would neither watch myself nor allow my children to watch so full of violence, hostility and hate it was.

Rather it was the way the white American Mormon missionaries interacted with the black African villagers in Uganda. There I found my limit and decided to devote this space to an exploration of what it means.

The Mormons -- all white young men in their early 20s -- came across as hapless as they struggled to silence their own questions about Mormonism, gay impulses, attraction to local women, ego trips and other issues.

But the Africans came across as idealized characters drawn from colonial, racist ideas of the Third World.

I've been many times to Africa both as a journalist as well as a teacher, training local journalists on techniques of reporting, interviewing, analysis, fact-checking, balanced reporting and similar subjects.

And I've gone out to villages with local reporters as interpreters and guides to spend hours sitting in sandy courtyards of Senegal, forests of Madagascar, arid farms in Niger and crowded alleys of the huge market in Kano, Nigeria.

The people I met are far more shrewd, alert, intelligent and sure of themselves than the willy-nilly characters created by The Book of Mormon.

Even those who could not read had through their years of living, and from listening to their peers in the local town square or listening to a radio learned more about the planet on which we live than the average American.

They also have their own complex Book of whatever it is they use for the name of God or the holy things in life: Islam, Christianity, animism, tribal beliefs. One would have about as much chance of believably converting these people to the American Book of Mormon as getting West Side Story's Maria and her lover safely out of New York's slums into the squeaky clean suburbs of America.

Now believable is not necessarily what a cartoonist aims for, especially one that revels in blood and violence as South Park does.

But for those of us who have seen the blessings and challenges of Africa, and worked with U.S. foreign aid agencies to offer a helping and appropriate hand, I am ashamed at the thousands of people going to The Book of Mormon and laughing at its portrayal of Africans as helpless, childlike, stupid, and easily manipulated.

Now I may be a grumpy old guy and rain on everyone else's parade by saying this. But we are a long way from racist musicals in which black Americans tap dance for massa and declared how much they love the old plantation.

At the same theater in Washington where I saw Mormon I had seen a few weeks previously Showboat, another musical about blacks and whites. But when the main character sang "Old Man River," he made my very bones sing with him. My heart pulsed with the song and with the humanity of the characters.

That was a far cry from the slipshod, two dimensional characters in Mormon who, in the end, assembled all the teaching from the missionaries into -- yes, you saw it coming -- a dance. Yes. The Africans they dance.

This was a pitiful caricature that deserves to be ridiculed, avoided and condemned. Sorry to those who did like it and clapped away while my hands remained at my side.