‘The Laramie Project’ brings circumstances of infamous hate crimes to light

Michael Bragg

The LGBT Center will host a staged reading of “The Laramie Project,” a play chronicling the story of Matthew Shepard, to honor the 15th anniversary of the gay student’s murder that resulted in the 2009 passing of hate crime legislation.

Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming who was kidnapped, beaten and tied to a fence in the outskirts of the small town of Laramie, where he was left for 18 hours until he was discovered by a cyclist. After he died from complications three days later, the act was deemed a hate crime on the basis of Shepard’s sexuality, and his parents became advocates for hate-crime legislation.

“It became a huge, nationally-known issue,” said Tommy Wrenn, event coordinator for the LGBT Center.

“The Laramie Project” is the result of more than 200 interviews with community members of varying degrees of involvement with the incident, compiled by a New York theater troupe in the weeks following Shepard’s death, as well as transcripts from the resulting trials.

“It includes everyone from the first responder, the police officers, the bartender, to so-and-so’s wife – people in the town, people at the university – and it really got a unique perspective on the whole story,” Wrenn said.

Following the sold-out success of the Center’s staged reading of the play “8” last semester, Wrenn sees free educational theater events as an important aspect of how the university-funded organization can spread awareness.

“We also wanted to honor the fact that historically the theater has been a very welcoming place for the LGBT community,” he said.

“The Laramie Project,” unlike “8,” presents real-life accounts as they were recorded during the interviews, without advocating for one opinion over another.

“As an actor, even if you see yourself saying these lines that you completely disagree with, the fact is that it’s still a real person,” graduate student and actor Rachel Ellen Simon said. “To validate their humanity, if not their opinions, by portraying them as a real person is interesting and really puts it in perspective.”

Director Luke White, a junior theatre arts major, notes that part of the significance of the play’s message lies in the similarities between Boone and Laramie, both small, mountain college towns.

“In the script it talks about how there’s the main strip with a Wal-Mart and fast food that leads into a historic downtown section – to me it just screams Boone,” White said.

White emphasizes the take-away message that while we may never expect an event like this to take place, especially in Boone, the circumstances are always possible.

“For people who come to Appalachian from smaller rural towns, they’re probably going to hear some things they’ve heard before and draw some similarities,” Wrenn said.

The play’s central message focuses on how the presumably harmless tendency of communities to adopt a “live and let live” philosophy toward stigmatized groups breeds the conditions for outward hate, rather than acceptance, freshman actor Elizabeth Fisher said. She auditioned for the play without having read the material before, unlike most of the other actors.

“When you see someone else feeling a certain way about things you can see it, it affects you more deeply than just reading about it, especially given the material with this,” Fisher said. “It’s about gay rights, but even broader than that it’s about people loving each other.”

“The Laramie Project” will show Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Parkway Ballroom of the Plemmons Student Union. Admission is free and the event is open to the public.

Story: LOVEY COOPER, Senior A&E Reporter