“Though one of the most performed plays in the country, this is not one that viewers enjoy watching – it is gritty and hard, containing some offensive language taken directly from the taped sessions with Laramie, Wyoming residents following the Matthew Shepard murder,” said Dr. Mary Grennen, Director of Theatre Arts at Tiffin University. “However, its virtue lies in its realistic portrayal of the details surrounding this notorious hate crime, and it succeeds as a socially informative drama that instills in its audience a raised level of compassion, tolerance, and acceptance.”
Dr. Grennen said that the play was originally selected based on technical and casting concerns; structural constraints of the Osceola Theatre and the limited number of available student actors guides her choice of plays to stage.
“I had always wanted to read it, knowing that it was a nice and simple set, and I ended up really liking it a lot,” Dr. Grennen said.
Shepard’s murderers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, were charged with two consecutive life sentences each. In an interview with ABC’s 20/20, McKinney claimed a methamphetamine addiction and overpowering rage controlled him when he pistol-whipped and robbed Shepard after a sexual advance was made in the car.
Due to the murderers’ emphasis on drugs and Shepard’s checkered past with drugs himself, skeptics have debated the true motive of the crime, thus discounting the core of the play’s intended meaning.
“[Stephen] Jimenez wrote a book subsequent to the play in which he describes Matthew Shepard as having known his attackers and having gotten into a scuffle over some drugs. A drug deal gone bad was basically the way it was described,” Dr. Grennen said.
“Even if that were the case, the horrific nature of the crime should not be eclipsed by the facts of what happened before the crime. Nobody should have that happen to them,” she continued, emphasizing the shock that should be attached to the crime itself. “So I don’t think it takes away from the play as a whole and its message.”
Because the play is based on transcripts from a multitude of interviews, it explores commentary from many angles. Audiences of all viewpoints should be able to learn from the play in some capacity.
“We’re all going to come away from this show with something new in our minds,” said Tyler Bell, a student actor in his last semester at TU. “I know as a cast member, I’m going to be able to see everything in a new light. It’s given me better insight to the different personalities that exist and the people that were involved in something so horrible.”
He further said that while people may disagree on the rights of homosexuals, everybody should agree that the crime is inexcusable.
Productions of this play have been met with controversy – and often with protests from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, the radical Christian group that picketed Shepard’s funeral. The church’s founder and former leader, the late Fred Phelps, Sr., makes an appearance in the play.
Bell portrays Phelps, among many other characters. He said that getting in the mindset of such an extreme character has been challenging.
“It’s going to be rough to get in that mindset because I’m personally not like that,” Bell said. “All of the shows I’ve been in here have been comedies and this is the first serious show I’ve been in here at TU. The most serious thing I’ve ever really done was probably last semester in Double in Diamonds as Wilbur Findexter. It was the first time I really had to get into the mindset of someone so sleazy.”
Even today, it seems to be agreed upon that the play’s meaning is one that needs to be heard.
“Sadly enough, the day of auditions, I hadn’t heard of Matthew Shepard or Laramie, for that matter. I was more or less given a crash course the day of auditions. So the weeks that followed, I did a little digging,” Bell said. “Matthew Shepard or any of those incredibly famous hate crimes weren’t ever discussed in history, whether it be world or U.S. history. If that’s not something they’re teaching in schools, it’s just something that should be known as to why these movements started – where it all began.”
Scott Williams, another veteran thespian who will also be filling multiple roles in the play, agreed.
“I was three when this happened, so if I wasn’t so involved in [LGBT+ rights], I probably wouldn’t have known about [Shepard],” Williams said. “Most of the people I talk to haven’t heard of him before. Something that happened not even twenty years ago -- nobody even knows about. So it’s like awareness in that sense that this is a thing that happened and is still going on. Maybe not as brutal and maybe not even in America as much, [but] it’s something that needs to be talked about and it’s just not talked about.”
The most recent information published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that 21 percent of the 5,462 single-bias hate crime incidents that occurred in the United States in 2014 were based on prejudices against sexual identity, gender, and gender identity. Of the 1,178 crimes rooted in prejudice against sexual orientation, 58 percent of the victims were gay males.
Through this play, Dr. Grennen hopes that the theatre program can build awareness to the fact that these hate crimes still exist – not just against homosexuals, but against most minorities.
She said, “The theme itself, though it focuses on the homosexual crime of Matthew Shepard, shines light on the whole problem – the universal problem of hate crimes against any particular group. […] I think that people can reach an awareness of the hate crimes that are ubiquitous and also be able to, hopefully, raise their level of compassion and understanding and tolerance of different groups.”
The Dragon’s Den Players will perform The Laramie Project on April 1 and 2 at 8 p.m. and on April 3 at 3 p.m. in Osceola Theatre. Tickets can be bought at the door for $4.
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