An act of hate inspires a project of hope.
When tragedy strikes, a town becomes split by their reactions. Most responded with compassion, but many turned to hate. The path to healing is not easy for the community of Laramie, Wyoming.
The University of Toledo’s upcoming production of “The Laramie Project” is co-directed by Pete Cross and Mark Leasor, two alumni of the UT Theatre Department.
The play is based on emotional interviews with the residents of Laramie after the death of a student at the University of Wyoming.
According to a press release, in October 1998, a 21-year-old gay college student named Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence, severely beaten, robbed and left to die. The cyclist who discovered him called for help, but it was no use. Shepard never regained consciousness and died just days later because of head injuries.
In response to the incident, members of the Tectonic Theatre Project and their director Moisés Kaufman traveled to Laramie from New York. They interviewed more than 100 residents in an attempt to recreate and reenact the events that occurred on that fateful night.
“‘The Laramie Project’ is about a community faced with trauma revolving around the tragic death of a young gay man,” Leasor wrote in an email interview. “Murdered (most believe) because he was gay, Matthew’s beating and subsequent death in a small town in Wyoming, an incident that received worldwide attention, brought anti-gay hate-crimes and the need for legislation to the forefront of consciousness.”
Leasor mentioned that it was because of this incident and ones similar to this — including the death of James Byrd who was killed only months before Shepard — that the government began to step in. Over a decade later and five different bill introductions by Rep. John Conyers, Congress was able to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
According to Leasor, many members of the LGBTQ community didn’t feel safe in their own homes during this time and suicide rates rose.
“Things have certainly changed. There has been progress,” Leasor said. “But there are still mountains to topple.”
Resonating with people of all ages, genders and races has made “The Laramie Project” a worldwide phenomenon and has opened discussion of prejudice against sexual orientation, race, gender and everything between.
“It’s also incredibly relevant in relation to anywhere manmade tragedy erupts,” Leasor wrote. “Think of Ferguson. Think of Paris. No matter where you stand on the issues, how do we, as a community, react? How do we move forward? What is the dialogue? Or are we silent?”
Leasor wrote that the main reason behind the play is to encourage discussion about the crime and its aftermath. It aims to stimulate conversation on all viewpoints of the event.
“Without open discussion I don’t think there’s any way to move forward,” Leasor wrote. “If we stay silent we risk bottling those feelings up, and we risk complacency and apathy.”
In the staging of the play, the directors say they decided to keep the entire ensemble part of the action, whether directly listening and participating or on the perimeter. They say the challenge is to make the highly narrative play more active by finding the reason behind a character’s story.
According to Leasor, the group spent rehearsal time discussing the murder and the effects that it had on the town. The cast also had the opportunity to meet and talk with a guest speaker, Scott Boberg, who was in Laramie at the time of the murder, which gave the cast an inside look into the town.
“Lucky for us it has turned out to be one of the most strongly connected ensembles we’ve worked with,” Leasor wrote. “The cast is doing a wonderful job breathing life and nuance into the language”
“The Laramie Project” will be performed Nov. 20-22 and Dec. 4-6. Friday and Saturday performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday performances will begin at 2 p.m. Admission is $8 for students, $10 for staff and faculty and $15 for general public.