Saturday, April 20, 2013

Playing Lamanite and Saving Whiteness: Embodied Disruptions of Post-Racial Rhetoric

The concluding entry for my series on the Mormon Miracle Pageant. If you have not read the Introduction, Part 2, or Part 3. You should do so before enjoying this epic finale.

The Mormon Miracle Pageant is not the only pageant that operates with recognition from the institutional LDS Church. In addition to Manti, there are five official pageants featured on the LDS Church’s website: two in Utah, one in Arizona, one in Illinois, and one in New York. Each expresses a different focus of church and sacred history. To examine how the bodies in Manti’s pageant disrupt the LDS Church’s post-1978/post-racial rhetoric, I am primarily interested in highlighting the difference between Manti and Palmyra’s Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Both pageants address the racial projects embedded in the religion’s foundational sacred text; however, the Hill Cumorah Pageant tries to refrain from representing racial distinctions. Palmyra employs costume designs to signify some relationship between Native Americans and The Book of Mormon civilizations, but they avoid the make-up. I point to the distinction not to commend Palmyra’s performance as a more ethical consideration of racial identities, but rather to assert that brownfaced bodies of Manti’s pageant challenge the post-race rhetoric the Hill Cumorah Pageant strives to assert.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant is the flagship of Mormon pageants. Performers travel from across the country to participate in it. Most are from Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and California. Families volunteer for weeks to learn how to play certain roles. Manti’s pageant might enjoy volunteers from outside Sanpete County; however, most are from the area. As part of LDS Church history sites in Palmyra, the Hill Cumorah Pageant is more of a religious tourist location than Manti. Palmyra was where the Church was founded; where Joseph Smith claimed he had visitations from angels and gods; where he published the Book of Mormon. The Manti Temple, while culturally significant, is ultimately less impressive. I say all of this to assert that the Hill Cumorah Pageant enjoys a position of legitimacy that Manti does not: the Manti pageant reflects the community of Manti; Palmyra is a pageant that represents the worldwide LDS Church. [1]

The flagship status of the Hill Cumorah Pageant necessitates its post-racial depiction of Lamanites. Beyond recognizing of the influence of publicity-minded folks that might be shaping decisions, it is important to articulate why and how the lack of race-specific casting or brownfacing can make sense to the faithful LDS members who come to see the show; especially when an event like the Manti pageant where such practices are utilized exists within the same faith-based community. I suggest that Hill Cumorah’s casting makes sense because it substantiates the LDS Church’s post-1978 narrative that with the revelation lifting the race-related priesthood and temple bans, God and the Church now sees everyone equally.

To the larger institution and culture, race no longer is an obstacle, barrier, or disability preventing access to eternal blessings, opportunities, or full participation in God’s kingdom on earth and in the life after death. In the grand narrative of life and afterlife, race does not impact one’s righteousness or circumstances, neither now nor in the past. Mormons conduct ritual ordinances, like baptism, for the dead to extend blessings connected to covenants to all. Such rituals are provided for individuals who did not have access to them while alive. Usually the narrative assumes that the limitation was due to time or location. Discussed less is the reality that some individuals were denied access. However, in the extension of ordinances, regardless of race, race becomes less historically or eternally significant. I suggest that this form of body culture does much to inform why the Hill Cumorah Pageant can and does depict Lamanites without feeling compelled to darken the actors in brownface. If the LDS Church knew their names, individual Lamanites would be proxy baptized and offered the chance to be (white) Mormons anyway.

The living tradition of brownface in Manti’s Mormon Miracle Pageant disrupts that narrative of a post-racial Mormon faith because it reveals that the rhetoric of post-racialism is itself a racial project in a long line of theologically-informed racial projects. The young man Brett sent me a picture of wore more than a costume as he moved across the hill in front of the temple. That young man embodied various repertories of racial projects embedded in the faith, history, canon, and narratives of Mormon culture. In a post-1978 LDS Church, one of those archived racial projects is the articulation of a post-racial cosmology, theology, and religion. However, embodying pre-1978 scriptures in a pre-1978 medium of performance calls forth other repertoires that challenge the post-racial narrative’s attempt to rewrite the past. Relying on the racial projects embedded in the content and form of the Mormon Miracle Pageant, as well as signifying how those projects were always invested in constructing the white body for mortal and eternal life, the young man’s body revealed how contemporary articulations of a post-racial faith and institutional LDS Church are new permutations on an old theme. The description of a post-race faith is still only concerned with the creation and salvation of white bodies. And that truth makes Brett, me, and others nervous . . . and laugh.

[1] A number of the aspects which are listed are not unique to the Hill Cumorah Pageant. In fact, the pageant in Nauvoo shares many of them like having performers from across the country; they are set apart as full-time missionaries; and the production fits into a larger space of spiritual history tourism. I do not treat the Nauvoo pageant in the main body of my argument because it does not contain a depiction of the content of the Book of Mormon as Palmyra’s and Manti’s do. While similar to Palmyra in many regards, the Nauvoo pageant has less immediate bearing on my discussion of pageantry’s relationship to racial projects in Mormonism.