Updated: Dec 15, 2021
The chronically unfunny and upsetting Book of Mormon at The Prince of Wales Theatre. Image: Johan Persson.
Last week the curtain came down on First Time, my solo show that smashes through the stigma and shame of HIV.
It was an honour to perform to thousands of people (just under 2.5k) at venues that felt welcoming, progressive and supportive.
We’ve worked tirelessly through a pandemic to ensure audiences cross the threshold so we can educate, destigmatise and empower through laughter and entertainment.
It’s been exhausting but I’ve been filled with pride at what we’ve acheived.
But last night I sat in the Palace Theatre in Manchester as hundreds of people laughed and mocked Africans with AIDS, I wondered why we had even bothered.
To say I was angry and upset was an understatement.
I’ve never felt so humiliated and unwelcome in a theatre in all my life.
Quite why the Press Team at ATG Palace and Opera House thought it was a good idea to invite a prominent HIV and LGBTQ+ activist along to the press night of this show is a mystery.
Quite how they thought a person living with HIV would react to such vile, offensive and upsetting mocking of AIDS is beyond me.
Clearly, we still have a LOT of work to do.
By the end of the first act I was visibly shaking.
I wasn’t just offended, I was deeply hurt and upset.
In the interval I noticed our Red AIDS Ribbons and sort of half chuckled with disbelief, but then the tears welled up in my eyes.
My boyfriend said we should leave and go home.
But taking my own medicine (‘Always stay for the second act, no matter if you hate the production’) we went back in, hoping for a shred of redemption.
I needn’t have bothered.
The Book of Mormon is written by South Park duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone, so I wasn’t expecting it to be the most PC night at the theatre.
But never in a million years did I think I would be sat in an audience whipped up into a braying school yard mob - a mob that was given permission by the writers to reduce themselves to their worst, most base, uncompassionate instincts.
A mob that mocked the most weak and vulnerable.
The infantile obsession with everybody in Uganda having AIDS was just the tip of the iceberg (Ugandan men having sex with babies to cure AIDS, fucking frogs to cure AIDS, the list goes on… and on.. and on).
The show was littered with lazy and offensive stereotypes without a hint of irony: African poverty and war, female genital mutilation, camp gay Mormons suppressing their feelings, laughing at men in dresses…
I thought I was going to see a show that mocked White Imperialism and White Saviour syndrome, but by the end, the majority White audience was cheering the assimilation of African people into White culture - it was a spectacular miss from the Production Team, an own goal to end all own goals.
Clearly we still have a LOT of work to do.
I thought I was coming to laugh at the powerful and potentially corrupt Mormon church - I thought the Mormons were the butt of the joke.
Yes, the Mormons are mocked, but they are framed as cute and cuddly, a bit geeky, misguided, socially awkward and badly dressed.
We laugh along with them and by the end the audience is cheering for them as the unlikely heroes as they colonise the African people.
I was waiting for the moment where the laughter became uncomfortable, when it became clear to the audience that they, and the world their ancestors had created were the butt of the joke.
It never came.
I sat in disbelief as the unlikely ‘hero’ of the show, Elder Arnold Cunningham, becomes leader of his own church in Africa with the audience whooping and cheering his success.
This is a character with almost no redeemable features.
The writer’s attempts to warm us to him are limited to his offer of friendship being rejected by a character with even less redeemable features.
Arnold Cunningham is the character that throughout the show elicits laughs from the majority White audience by consistently getting the Black lead female’s name wrong: Nutella, Necrophillia… Nicki Minaj.
I kid you not.
(Her beautiful name is Nabulungi if you were wondering).
He’s the hero of the story and he gets away with that!
No learning, no realisation, no character journey, no remorse - to say it left a bitter taste in the mouth is an understatement.
You know, despite working in the arts and entertainment industry, my boyfriend can’t seem to understand when I say it’s trash.
Well tonight he saw first hand as he witnessed LGBTQ+ actors humiliate themselves in front of a majority cis-het crowd who laughed raucously at their (non-ironic) camp send ups.
Tonight he saw it first hand as talented Black actors humiliated themselves in front of a majority White crowd that fizzed with joy every time an African accent mispronounced ‘Utah’.
Is this where we’re at?
Straight, cisgendered, majority White production teams asking Black and LGBTQ+ actors to humiliate themselves for cheap laughs?
This is award-winning, critically acclaimed theatre?
This is what the New York Times said was: ‘The best musical of the century?!’
If it is, I want out.
All those names in the programme.
All those hundreds of ‘yes’ people desperate for a bit of fortune and fame, a bit of musical glamour, and not one of them said, ‘no, this is off the mark.’
Not one of them.
They all said yes.
What a bunch of cowardly sycophants.
Shame on them.
Manchester is a beautiful and diverse city with large LGBTQ+, Black and Asian communities.
Last night ATG Palace and Opera House stated loud and clear: this theatre is not for you.
Shame on them.
And if you are one of the people that sat and laughed along…
Shame on you too.
The thing is, I bet the team behind the show think that they’re really clever and progressive.
The show they’ve created couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mimicking bigotry and passing it off as satire is the laziest form of comedy.
And when you have to add the caveat: ‘I’m not racist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist/sexist’ etc in defence of your work, you’ve really failed all round as a writer.
We may as well have sat and watched two hours of dancing minstrels with Bernard Manning as compere…
But all of that aside, do you know what stung the most?
On the train home I turned to my boyfriend with a realisation - people I know, people that are close to me, have seen the show and told me it was good.
Not one called out the bullshit.
Not one warned me I might not want to go and put myself through it.
Clearly we still have a LOT of work to do.
Offensive comedy will always divide opinion, but it just sucks when people like you are the ones being mocked.
Mock the Mormon church, offend them and their God - not the vulnerable people they prey on to further their agenda.
The Mormons are coming?
They needn’t have bothered, and nor should you.