A decade after Matthew Shepard was discovered hanging on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, the issue of gay bashing has become mainstream material for school theatre.
Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project tells the story of a theatre troupe who ventured to the western town so famously branded by the beating death and the very public homophobic reaction that followed.
Kelowna Secondary School plans to stage the play next week, giving Okanagan audiences an unfettered account of the historic case which would eventually change the definition of a hate crime in the United States to include crimes motivated by gender and sexual orientation.
“People seem to find it more interesting when you’re doing a play about a true story, so I always start by telling people it’s a true story,” said 16-year-old Grade 12 student Avery Kirk, who plays several characters in the show, including a detective working on the case and one of the actors interviewing the town’s people.
The Laramie Project brings the story to life through the eyes of 74 different characters, using words transcribed from interviews of Laramie residents as they tried to debrief the theatre company on what had happened, why it happened, and what it meant for their town and the world.
Shepard’s funeral was used as a platform for homophobic members of the community to protest, in particular a Christian preacher, earning the town an international reputation both for the crime and the fallout.
And yet, as the KSS students have learned, that didn’t stop some residents from denying what had occurred.
In exposing those attitudes, and the ease with which some slough responsibility, teacher Neal Facey says he hopes the project will prove a culture bender.
“There are kids in this school who are afraid. They are afraid to be at school,” he said.
“There’s a line in the play where one character says, ‘This is America. You shouldn’t have the right to feel that afraid.’
“Well, when we started, I told (the students) this play will change you. It doesn’t make it easy on the audience, but it will change you. It changes school culture.”
Based in a town roughly the size of Penticton, the students working on the project seem to understand the significance just as well.
Isabel Simmons said one of her characters has to pick up medication for her daughter, a cop who was exposed to Shepard’s blood. He was HIV positive and the daughter needs the medication to stave off potential infection.
“It shows how two human beings can cause so much grief,” said Simmons. “And just how far that goes.”
Kirk and Simmons say the concept of the story, which takes shape from the interviews theatre troupe actors elicit, ensures it’s as unbiased an account as possible, allowing one to walk away and form their own opinion on what took place.
Still, the play is designed to look at the difference between tolerance and acceptance, student John Wilks explained, noting it illustrates how tolerance, or the ability to turn a blind eye and say live and let live, is really not good enough.
Hailed by Time Magazine as one of the Top Ten Plays of the Year in the year 2000, the Laramie Project will show at the Studio Theatre in Kelowna Secondary School Nov. 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, and 25. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for students.
Ticket sales begin Nov. 14. Call the KSS box office at 250-762-2805, ext. 590.The play is not recommended for young children.