(published April 26, 2013)
The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman and various members of the New York–based Tectonic Theater Project, chronicles the response of small town Laramie, WY, to the murder of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was a gay University of Wyoming student, who in October 1998 was found tied to a pole, beaten to death by two men he had met at a bar. In the trials that followed, it became very clear that his death was a hate crime. The play, which ran in Hall Auditorium from April 18–20 under the direction of Associate Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Caroline Jackson-Smith, covers more than Shepard’s death; The Laramie Project sheds light on the controversies surrounding a “live and let live” philosophy and the necessity to develop opinions on issues with effects that span further than one’s immediate community.
What makes The Laramie Project depressing is also what gives it strength as a work of art. Many of the play’s theatrical elements emphatically support an intimate connection between the audience and the actors. The small cast of eight plays a wide range of characters; some, such as the bartender from the bar where Shepard met his killers, are relevant to the scene of the crime. Other characters include police officers and detectives investigating the case, as well as a University of Wyoming theater professor and some of her students. There are also friends of Shepard, doctors who tried to treat him and his killers. The portrayal of so many characters by so few people helped keep the audience extremely invested in the play, the point of view shifting constantly to construct the story from interview to interview.
The Laramie Project is a quintessential play within a play, but only to the extent that the actors made the audience aware they were in a theater. The playwright and politically-driven theatrical theorist Bertolt Brecht would have been proud: Through its extended stage that seemed to reach the audience, harsh lighting, very minimal costume changes (often, it was merely a hat or a blazer that defined each character from the actor’s next) and deeply intimate acting, Jackson-Smith’s rendition of The Laramie Project reminded its audience that it was viewing a theatrical production. But this theater was a forum to probe previous beliefs and question the world around you more than a medium to represent one particular instance.
While many of these thoughts — about apathy, the ability to articulate opinions, the nature of hatred, hate crimes, homophobia, phobia itself or simply a heart-wrenching story — were often upsetting, these were ideas that each audience member could continue to contemplate after the play.
The show itself was centered, above all, on the paradox that defines the Laramie community. While Laramie residents had defined themselves as united by their mutual appreciation for the simplicity and beauty of Wyoming nature and only shared a “first degree of separation” from other members in their small town, they were much more divided on the more complicated matters of their town. There seemed to be an assumption before Shepard’s death that Laramie residents were universally tolerant of each other’s sexualities and other differences, just so long as they weren’t “in [their] face” about it. In such a small community, while there was some progress toward tolerance of these differences, those who did not blend in with the majority stood out and were ostracized.
“Hate crime” is a term carefully used in The Laramie Project; while these acts themselves are infrequent, the discussion that followed Shepard’s death helped people question why this crime happened in the first place. Many concluded that it was because there was no outlet for effective discussion of these issues. If people are unable to constantly question their beliefs and their surroundings, it becomes impossible to grow, even in a tightly knit and otherwise supportive environment like Laramie, WY — or Oberlin, Ohio.
This spring seems an especially apt time to perform and produce The Laramie Project in Oberlin. In light of recent events, this production helped continue to shed light on the issues of bias and hatred that arise in small towns. Perhaps more importantly, this play showed that an individual whose identity does not fall within the conventional value framework of his or her community may be ostracized — and in order for the entire community to embrace difference, it is imperative for all to embrace the critical inquiry of things that are near and dear to us. This can help each of us better articulate and defend our points of view in the future and ensure that we do not simply fall within a larger group that is assumed to hold the same values but is unable to discuss them in detail. The importance of being an ally, and learning how to be a good ally, is a focal point that can help us continue to develop ourselves interpersonally and our roles within the communities we inhabit throughout our lives.