BYU comedy troupe cancels ‘Moana’ spoof after accusations of racial insensitivity

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PROVO, Utah (ABC4 Utah) – A Brigham Young University comedy troupe is apologizing for a planned Moana parody that some in the Polynesian community and others believe was “in poor taste.”

BYU’s Divine Comedy had planned to put on a show spoofing Disney’s hit 2016 animated film Moana and the LDS Church-produced short film “Johnny Lingo,” which was made in 1969 and that many today find laughably out-of-date and culturally ill-advised. The film is about a Pacific Islander woman named Mahana whose father is trying to marry her off. Villagers mock her because she is not considered beautiful. Even her father refers to her as “Mahana you ugly.” A wealthy suitor named Johnny Lingo comes to the island, recognizes her beauty and offers her father eight cows in exchange for her hand in marriage. 

The film used to be shown frequently at LDS activities to teach about seeing the good and inherent value in others. It has since become more obscure, but most in the Mormon community are aware of it. Some, like Mike Tuiasoa, cringe at what they call the film’s apparent misogynistic and even racist undertones. 

BYU’s Divine Comedy is known for mashing up two films in their sketches and parodying them, poking fun at certain aspects of Mormon culture in the process. Some in the Polynesian community believe the group went too far with ‘Moana You Ugly.’

The flyer for the show, which was scheduled to happen Oct. 13, features two of the troupe’s members dressed in Polynesian garb and a wig. 

Mike Tuiasoa, representing Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition, said he and others feel the parody amounts to “brownface.”

“There’s a very big problem here, we shouldn’t have to point out that it’s racist, or educate people on why it’s racist,” Tuiasoa added. 

After the backlash, Divine Comedy apologized on the troupe’s Facebook page. 

We are deeply sorry about our intended parody of the movie, Moana, and the harm it has caused. We appreciate all members of the community that have helped us understand this important issue more clearly so that in the future we can avoid similar mistakes. We will not be performing the Moana parody at our upcoming show. 

Tuiasoa and other representatives of UPICEC said the incident shows what they call a lack of understanding of minorities in Utah. 

“It’s a minor thing,” Tuiasoa said. “But it means that a group of white students thought there was nothing wrong with this…”

Not everyone in the Polynesian Mormon community agrees with the backlash, however. 

“Cultures were meant to be shared,” said Brock Allen, who posted a Facebook Live video in which he said he spoke “for all Mormon Islanders.” 

“Anybody can get angry about anything,” he said while dressed in a “Maui” costume, a main character in Moana. 

Some took to Facebook to advise against the skit before it was canceled. There were others who came to the troupe’s defense after the skit was axed. 

George Nelson, a BYU theatre professor and advisor to Divine Comedy, had no further comment on the matter. 

Divine Comedy still has a show scheduled for Friday, Oct. 13th. on BYU’s campus. 

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