By Clara Nack, photos by Paul Coltas
Two young and most of all mismatching Mormon boys are sent to Uganda, on a mission to convert the local people to their church. A sacred script turned on its head and the reality of Africa, that appears as “rather shocking” to the Christian Westerners – creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are aiming to offend. In its ninth year, the multiple award-winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon visited the Musikhuset Aarhus for two weeks of full house evenings. Leading character Elder Price, brought to stage-life by performer Kevin Clay, is the keenly smiling hope of the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints, who “just believes”. The so-called realities, the stage character encounters on the African continent, manifest themselves in deeply rooted stereotypes with a colonialist note behind the scenes. But should it all just be laughed away? Actor Kevin Clay on the humor, the heart and the faith.
Jutland Station: Looking back at almost nine years of Mormon missionaries successfully singing us through The Book of Mormon – what first caught your attention for the show?
Kevin Clay: The musical came out when I still went to college and I remember thinking it would just be the right type for me. So, after graduating I was able to audition and join the ensemble in 2015. I think it is not only a really good example of classic musical theatre, it’s also really funny. In that way, it pushes boundaries but it stands for something as well.
Jutland Station: What exactly does the show stand for?
Kevin Clay: It brings up questions of religion in a modern-day world, about having faith, about being part of this community and what this means, in a good or bad way. It acts as a conversation starter.
Jutland Station: Reading into the musical and its religious topic, a lot is indeed being said about mocking a religion and how controversial this could turn out. However potential criticism is not aiming at the stereotyping of African – essentially Ugandan people – who still seem to be living in uncivilized times and conditions according to the musical – how do you assess this aspect of the show?
Kevin Clay: We get comments like this a lot. What I always say is you need to watch and process the entire show from start to finish. Of course, it uses specifically Mormonism as the religion and it uses Africa as the country to go to, but it’s mocking neither of those groups to their core. It pokes fun and uses humor to open up the audiences to a much larger picture to say: it’s about your faith and the more important qualities of religion. As for the Ugandans, their journey sort of represents what it is to acquire faith.
Jutland Station: You were just generalizing a whole continent there, which is where I want to stick to my point, of the musical stereotyping African people. They seem to be living in conditions, where they need Westerners to arrive in order to tell them what could be best for them.
Kevin Clay: I think that is a concept our show plays on, to turn it on its head. Our writers want that idea of the two missionaries, especially my character Elder Price, really holding that belief. The idea of ‘I’m going to that country and I’m going to blow their minds and change their world’, is not what ultimately happens.
Jutland Station: How does the show transmit the satirical aspect of these highly controversial topics such as colonialism and also to a lesser extent sexism?
Kevin Clay: I think one is already having made it a musical. The platform for musical theatre brings a notion of comfort or just happiness and a good time. I think people come to see our show, expecting a classic musical, with some dancing and singing and we do deliver on that. But that’s also what gets us to some of our more shocking material, which gets our audience off balance. Which is where we need them to be! We need our audience to be off balance, so that hopefully they can be open to the message that we’re going to deliver to them by the end of the show.
Jutland Station: Why do you think the humor is a good way of transmitting that message?
Kevin Clay: I think it helps to get people in the door, that wouldn’t necessarily come and see this type of story, but the musical opened up our audience to be much wider. It’s easier to swallow some of the harder topics and more severe wrongs that are happening in the world, if we’re also able to laugh a little bit. How the two communities of the Mormon missionaries and the Ugandans come together, reveals the heart of our musical. The story we’re trying to tell is more about faith in the bigger sense of transcending certain religious communities.
Jutland Station: So, how would you define faith in the character of the show?
Kevin Clay: I think that’s what our show is talking about. Everybody can have their own notions of what faith should be, there might be some people believing in an afterlife or having faith makes others happy and their community better. The show submits to all these different kinds of people and in a sense, faith is all of that. None is right or wrong, it’s just about being good.
Jutland Station: Why do you think the show is also relevant in regions of the world where Mormonism is not so widely practiced?
Kevin Clay: I remember us as a company discussing ‘Is it gonna take as well?’ But what I think is playing nicely is that conversations about faith and religion transcend our specific topic. People can relate to the message, that is broader than that. Additionally, the Mormon missionaries in the show, specifically Elder Price, sort of in a funny way, represent America. I feel audiences, even if it’s on a subconscious level, have been able to connect to this classical American idea, that they can come wherever they want, do whatever they want and it’ll just be a success. When that doesn’t happen, it’s kind of fun to watch.
The UK production of The Book of Mormon was staged at the Musikhuset Aarhus from Wednesday, 20th of November till Friday, 6th of December 2019.