The Tony Award-winning musical follows two 19-year-old Mormon missionaries as they’re sent to a rural Ugandan village to convert lost souls.
Elder Kevin Price, a handsome, devout true believer, and Elder Arnold Cunningham, his polar opposite, turn to – let’s call it unorthodox – ways to find new disciples in a village ruled by an evil warlord known as General Butt F—ing Naked (an allusion to Liberian commander Joshua Milton Blahui, known for his role during the First Liberian Civil War).
Do they succeed in their mission? Or will they lose a lot more than their faith?
With numbers like “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which tackles the legacies of infamous figures like Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer, The Book of Mormon is a story about “being yourself, and allowing that person to shine.” That’s according to actress Kim Exum, who plays Nabulungi – the sweet and innocent female lead, curious to learn more about the Mormon faith from the missionaries that have descended upon her Ugandan village.
The musical’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the minds behind the enduring series South Park), as well as Robert Lopez (co-creator of the Tony Award-winning satirical musical Avenue Q), are no strangers to controversy and satire. In fact, they welcome it.
But since its Broadway premiere in 2011, the show has been plagued by critics questioning how the story portrays a religion followed by more than 15 million people worldwide, women and Africans, not to mention third-world poverty and disease. But maybe that’s the whole point of the satirical art form.
“This play is a testament to that American voice,” Exum says. “It’s genius because it poses a lot of questions that people are scared to ask, and I think that’s what really makes the work beautiful. I think that’s why so many people flock to it, and so many people of all different backgrounds want to see it.”
The Baltimore native has been playing the role of Nabulungi for the past year – first on Broadway, and now on a national tour performing eight shows a week. Needless to say, she’s gotten to know her alter ego pretty well.
“You begin to learn more things about the character,” she says. “[Nabalungi] is extremely optimistic, and she has this youthful energy that transcends everyone else in the play. She’s so bright and fun.”
The VCU alum is rejuvenated as she takes the role from Broadway to the Kennedy Center; DC is the fifth city she’s visited on the current tour. Exum still recalls the day that she was only an audience member, and not yet a company player.
“I just remember sitting in the back of the theater and laughing the entire time,” she says. “It was so funny. The more you see it, the more you notice. There’s a lot of subtle pieces of comedy you don’t really get the first time around. It’s funnier than I could have even imagined.”
She credits some of those subtleties to the ensemble performers. If you’ve seen the show before, she recommends watching the ensemble.
“They really bring the whole world to life.”
The Kennedy Center has celebrated the cultural legacy of the U.S. for nearly five decades regardless of the heritage, political affiliation, religion or identity of the artists behind iconic operas, ballets, scores, musicals and b-boy battles, so perhaps The Book of Mormon is the perfect musical for 2017. It’s something that everyone can agree on – that there’s always something to laugh about, and maybe even think about.
The Book of Mormon runs through Sunday, November 19 in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Tickets start at $59. Learn more at www.kennedy-center.org.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org