Laramie lessons: ‘connection vital to restoring relationships and unlearning bigotry’

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    The finale of "The Laramie Project."
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    A scene from "The Laramie Project."
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    A scene from "The Laramie Project." Photo: Crystal Garrity
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    A scene from "The Laramie Project."

A biker, slightly shaken from falling off his bike in rural Wyoming, notices what he thinks is a scarecrow on a fence up ahead.

As the biker draws closer, he realizes it is a person, not a scarecrow. A person whose face is completely caked in blood, except for tracks under their eyes that tears left. A person with a slight figure, white twine binding their wrists to a rail fence, who he first presumes to be a child. He soon realizes it is the body of a young man, and calls the police for help.

That 21 year old is Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, who has been beaten nearly to death, struck 19 to 21 times in his head with the butt of a rifle, but is still alive. Emergency lights flash in the quiet, chilled autumn afternoon as Matthew Shepard is transported to the hospital.

The media descends on Laramie, on the friends and acquaintances of Matthew Shepard. When Matthew dies a few days later, the world begins to mourn his terrible death and understand it as a hate crime.

Four weeks after this brutal murder, Moises Kaufman and nine other members of the New York City Tectonic Theater Company travel to Laramie and conduct interviews with dozens of townspeople. They return to Laramie many times in the next year and a half, in total conducting over 200 interviews. Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Company then weave together these interviews with news reports, courtroom transcripts, and journal entries to create “The Laramie Project,” first produced in 2000.

The Play at ARHS

John Bechtold, the head of the theater department, said that one of the reasons he chose to put on “The Laramie Project” this year is that last year, the ARHS theater company joined The Ghostlight Project, an alliance of mostly professional theaters that commit themselves to being safe spaces for all, where themes of equity and social justice can be explored. “[Theaters involved have] a commitment to telling stories that need to be told, in a time and age where we still need those stories,” Mr. Bechtold said.

Mr. Bechtold also believes this play based on real life events was a good opportunity to explore the up and coming art form of documentary theater, which our theater department hasn’t done before. “I wanted to have a piece that wasn’t art for art’s sake, something that could have a real and meaningful impact on how people think about other people,” he said.

After months of preparation from many different communities in the school, “The Laramie Project” was produced during the first week of December, on the evenings of December 6, 7, and 8, in an immersive format. This means many scenes were spread out around the building, and audience members could follow different paths through the story, encountering scenes in different orders.

“To our knowledge, no one has done it in this format,” Mr. Bechtold told the The Daily Hampshire Gazette. He picked the format because it allows audience members to imitate seeking out sources, like members of the Tectonic Theater Company did when writing the play.

“We hope that the experience hits all the nearer and has all the more meaning because [audience members] were participants in what their night was,” Mr. Bechtold summed up.

Before the Saturday night show, ARHS Junior Maggie Ryan said she expected to “gain a deeper understanding of how people react to events driven by prejudice and hatred in their communities, and how

different divides form among a community” from the production. A cast of around 40 actors played over 60 different characters, many of whom got a few minutes to express their opinions on the death of Matthew Shepard.

Weaving through hallways, guided by tealights, audience members traveled to different parts of this simulated world, which was made even more genuine by the attention to detail paid by the cast and crew. As audience members sat on the library couches among actors who talked in hushed voices, in the background computer screens flashed with silent videos of candlelit vigils for Matthew Shepard and speeches by officials after his death. In addition to these intimate scenes, there were large group scenes that all audience members were gathered for, to experience critical testimonies and speeches.

After the show, audience member Anastasia Morton said she thought the performance was wonderful. “This was my second time seeing it and I think I got more from it the second time. The way that the students executed their performance gave [the material] the severity it deserved,” she said.

Audience member Mary Prentakis said it was also her second night at the show.  “It was very powerful, very haunting. I kept thinking about it the next day,” she said. “Bech and the whole cast and crew deserve a lot of credit for what they pulled off. Their treatment of the play and the subject matter was spot on and excellent.”

Prentakis felt most impacted by scenes with Romaine Patterson, portrayed by Angela Oldham-Barka. “[She] brought to life that character in a way that really spoke to me, and also what the real woman did do, I found to be the real takeaway for me,” she said. “The hatred is obviously something that nobody can forget, but the fact that she organized something so beautiful and went toe to toe with [Reverend Phelps] was [inspiring].”

Fred Phelps was the founder of the Kansas based Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for its extremely hateful speech, especially against LGBTQ+ people. He and other members of the church protested at Matthew Shepard’s funeral, and at many productions of “The Laramie Project” around the country. Many others agreed that the scene in which Romaine Patterson organized a counter protest against Reverend Phelps’ hate filled speech at Shepard’s funeral by encircling Phelps with volunteers dressed as angels with massive wings, was extremely powerful.

Many also felt especially moved by the scene in which audience members were taken to the fence where Shepard was left to die. There, they heard from Dr. Cantway, portrayed by Celia Douville Beaudoin, who was overcome with emotion recalling having treated both Matthew Shepard and Aaron McKinney, one of the two men who beat Matthew Shepard and left him to die tied to the rail fence, on the same day, without knowing their connection.

Their connection was more than just victim and murderer; it was an out gay man and a homophobe. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, McKinney’s partner in crime, both high school dropouts with jobs as roofers and Shepard’s age, approached Shepard at the bar where all three met the night of October 6, 1998, and convinced him to come with them under the pretense that they were gay.

Then they drove him to a remote area, told him that they weren’t gay, and brutally beat him. In his police confession later, McKinney repeatedly referred to Matthew Shepard as “queer,” “the gay,” and the f-slur. This wasn’t random, it was a hate crime.

ARHS’s  Sexuality and Gender Alliance, SAGA, collaborated with the theater department on this production. “[SAGA was] an extra set of minds and of eyes looking at how the explicity LGBTQ content is handled,” said senior Yelena Maher, the president of SAGA. Maher believed SAGA members could provide a different perspective than others involved in the production because many of people in SAGA are in the LGBTQ community.

Emily Prichard, the staff advisor to SAGA, believes that “The Laramie Project” could help raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues at this school. “[The show is] all original source material; it’s not a fictionalized version of something, it’s the thing itself,” she said. This forces audience members traveling through the play to reckon with the fact that homophobia and hate are still very present, “and can lead to extreme violence,” she explained.

Matthew Shepard’s death is one example of a hate crime, but she hopes its depiction can lead to larger conversations about other groups that are targeted today, for example trans women of color. “Part of the hope when SAGA got involved in the show was that there would be larger conversations sparked about what’s going on today,” she said, “to make it matter.”

SAGA also collaborated with the theater company to create art installations around the school; there is a handmade circular fence mobile hanging in the atrium, simulating the fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die, and pictures, newspaper clippings, and letters from the time of Shepard’s death are displayed in the library and the performing arts hallway.

Maher said that the art project was created to serve two goals, both “to be a way for people who don’t go to the show to have access to information, [in] a more passive education- they don’t have to seek it out but it’s also not forced on them.” The other is “for people who are seeing [the show]. We’ve been trying to remind people as much as possible of the reality of it all, that these were real people. It can be hard to remember that while you’re seeing it, but it’s very important.”

Actors, more than anyone else, had to realize this when delving into this production, which was especially hard with certain roles. ARHS sophomore Ian Juras played Aaron McKinney. He said “[my role] was really hard because of the use of the f-slur, and in rehearsals we would always censor ourselves. But when it came to production week, it was a shock to myself and the rest of the cast when those words were used.”

Senior Emilio Levins-Page had a similar experience in his role of Fred Phelps, and said that at first he had a really hard time saying his lines, especially in front of people. “Part of me is like, ‘This is wrong. Why am I doing this?’” However, he said, “I found over the course of the production that it’s impossible to understand the significance of the Westboro Baptist church‘s hate without context.” He saw his role as providing that context, letting the audience experience the hate, rather than just hearing about it.

ARHS senior Celia Douville Beaudoin played three characters: an anonymous friend of Shepard’s; Andrew Gomez, who spent time in jail with Aaron McKinney; and Dr. Cantway. She said “speaking another person’s words is a uniquely moving experience. These raw clips of speech allowed me as an actor to reach deeper into an instinctive way of talking and expressing myself.”

Like many other cast members, she found learning to embody her characters was tough, but was worth the work. “What really unlocked those parts for me [was] knowing that the words could carry me as an actor, because they carried real people,” she said.

Now how can we use this collage of real people’s words and actions to craft our own? How can we use this reflection on a hate crime to stop others from occurring? Douville Beaudoin believes the most critical lesson to draw and apply from this play is the importance of empathy.

She said “the show rips the veil off of this nebulous idea of ‘hatred’ to reveal that oppression is born and sustained by the same humanity we all share. It’s a deeply uncomfortable and often frightening experience to feel empathy for someone you find morally offensive, but ‘The Laramie Project’ deftly illustrates that this emotional connection is vital to restoring relationships and unlearning bigotry.”

By participating in this show, watching it, or merely thinking about it, we have all taken the first steps toward learning how to build empathy and to extinguish the flames of hate with love and understanding.