By Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune reporter
4:04 PM CST, December 20, 2012
When it comes to "The Book of Mormon," how young is too young?
Written by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with "Avenue Q" co-creator Robert Lopez), the Broadway musical that just set up camp at the Bank of America Theatre in the Loop is an obvious draw for fans of the long-running Comedy Central series.
Which is to say, adolescents.
But when the satirical roasting of a major religion (and frequently, religion itself) is served up on a platter — with references to homophobia, female genital mutilation, pedophilia, AIDS, gun violence and racial strife played for laughs on the side — do you really want your kids indulging?
The F-word shows up a lot, as do a few words that some consider even more vulgar. There are lines about raping a baby. Some intimate acts are simulated on stage. God takes a metaphorical beating and a literal cussing-out.
"It's not for everyone," says Harvard Medical School psychologist Anthony Rao, laughing at the self-evidence of his statement even as he utters it.
But I think it's for plenty of us, even kids as young as 15 or 16. (The show carries no minimum age for entry.)
"Art is one of the major ways we try to grapple with important things, uncomfortable things," Rao says. "This show does it with a lot of humor and catchy music and over-the-top language. It's presented in a way that's extreme to make us think."
Extreme to a point that makes it inappropriate for kids who are too young to find humor in the absurd. Developmentally, kids are ready to process complicated messages and disturbing themes at wildly different ages — some as young as 14, maybe, others not until closer to 18. Parents will have to use their best judgment.
"Many families will say, 'There's no way I'm taking my kids to that,' just from the way it's described," Rao says.
And that's absolutely the right call if your child isn't ready to tackle questions of a sexual nature or able to grapple with disturbing topics without feeling despondent or frightened. Most of the controversial stuff here is raunchy and vulgar, not cruel or violent. But violence is both implied and alluded to, and nothing in this show is handled delicately.
That said, I think we sell short the show and its creators by assuming it pushes the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. This isn't shock-jock radio.
This is a show that grabs the weightiest of topics and holds them up to the light (albeit a pulsating, delightfully scored, multi-color light): Why would a loving God allow human suffering? Is it exploitative or altruistic to evangelize to starving, dying Africans? How many gay kids are living in fear of eternal damnation — or worse, their parents' scorn?
It's also a show that is fetching close to $500 a seat on Broadway, is sold out for months in Chicago and is predicted to continue packing the house through at least January 2014. I'm not sure that would be the case, if not for the F-bombs and sex jokes.
I think we similarly sell short our teenagers by assuming we'll corrupt their young minds or warp their young souls or coarsen their young language (ha!) by exposing them to such a show.
"The teenage brain isn't going to hear or see something (in the show) it hasn't thought of or encountered by now," says Rao, who runs a private family counseling practice outside of Boston. "When my office door closes and teens feel free to talk openly, I'm astonished at how sophisticated, edgy, thought-provoking they can be."
So what if we sat them down in front of a show that asks them to consider, for two hours, the role of religion and the global plight of women and the scourge of AIDS and our twisted relationship with race and culture? Even if they're laughing through the bulk of it?
"Humor is healing," says Arden Greenspan Goldberg, a New York-based psychotherapist and author of "What Do You Expect? She's a Teenager" (Sourcebooks). "We need humor, especially young people, in order to deal with issues that are very painful. (The writers) exaggerate to the point of ridiculousness to make it more palatable to dive into these issues."
And what if, afterward, we dove in with them a little further?
"The subject matter can be a springboard for so many discussions," says Goldberg. "'You know, a lot of that was so funny and ridiculous, but there's also a lot of truth to it.' Engage them in thinking and talking about it."
The success of the show lies largely in its ability to question so boldly, so aggressively our values and norms without claiming to know a better way. It scoffs at our current agenda without really pushing a different one. It's open-minded.
Not a bad example to set for our kids.
"Spend some time afterward processing it with your kids," suggests Rao. "Ask questions and don't be judgmental and let them do most of the talking. "
Goldberg's children, now 23 and 30, grew up attending theater productions with their parents.
"One of my daughter's all-time favorites is 'Rent,'" she says. "What are we talking about there? AIDS, rape, interracial (relationships), homophobia. But what a springboard for conversations. I think it helped her become the person she is — inclusive, empathetic, compassionate.
"Exposure to this stuff," Goldberg says, "even though it's jarring, is OK."
The Tribune's book on "The Book of Mormon" is online: find Chris Jones' review, dining suggestions and more at chicagotribune.com/bookofmormon.