The Book of Mormon, the beloved musical from South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, is more than just a satire of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, though much of the humor does come from pointing out some of the stranger beliefs of the religion to those unfamiliar: that Jesus visited America just after his death in Jerusalem; that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri; that faithful followers may be rewarded with their own planet; and that black men of African descent couldn’t be priests until 1978. It’s a satire of all kinds of fundamentalism with a soft spot for the parts of religion that inspire us to be kinder to each other.
The story follows a pair of newly called Mormon missionaries, the self-assured golden boy Elder Price and the bumbling, clueless Elder Cunningham. Instead of Price’s dream mission field of Orlando, they’re sent to a village in northern Uganda decimated by AIDS, poverty and violence. Parker, Stone and Lopez treat the superstitions of the villagers with the same scorn (and less research) as they do the Mormon church. The only cringe-y moments bigger than the constant, hilarious transgressive humor were caused by misguided African caricature.
The villagers are so beaten down by their circumstances that their stoic response, “Hasa Diga Eebowai”—their version of “Hakuna Matata”—translates in the made-up dialect to “Fuck you, God,” something that the horrified missionaries learn only after repeatedly shouting it.
But it’s that inner repressiveness rather than any outer oppression caused by religion that the writers skewer most, in songs like “Turn It Off”—about simply burying any feelings of sadness, anger or gay desire—or the self-explanatory “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” All the dirty jokes, ridiculous re-enactments and sexual innuendo serve to free the characters and audience from their self-made shackles.
The show has continued its run on Broadway since opening in 2011, and the national tour is currently at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta for the third time in the last four years. The mostly unknown touring cast did an admirable job in roles established by the likes of Josh Gad, Nicki M. James and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry (as General Butt Fucking Naked). Standouts included Conner Peirson, who imbued the frumpy Elder Cunningham with a little bit of Garrett from Community, and Kayla Pecchioni, who leant her astute comic timing and natural ebullience to Nabulungi.
In the end, religion, even made-up religion—especially made-up religion—is the surprising hero of The Book of Mormon. “It’s a metaphor,” one of the local women tells Nabulungi, when her faith is shaken. “Salt Lake City isn’t an actual place.”
Ultimately, the truth of Joseph Smith’s golden tablets isn’t the point. It’s the power of a good story to provide hope, courage and kindness to its listeners that matters. And against all odds, underneath the baby-rape, diarrhea and frog-fucking jokes, that’s what Parker, Lopez and Stone have given us.