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Commentary: ‘The Laramie Project’ combines art and activism

Photo provided by Creative Commons.

In October of 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally tortured and left to die near his hometown of Laramie, Wyo. Shepard was found covered in blood and tied to a fence. He was comatose with a fractured skull. Shepard never regained consciousness.

His assault was motivated primarily, if not entirely, by homophobia.

At the time, because violence motivated by sexual orientation could not be lawfully labeled a “hate crime,” Shepard’s death prompted a movement to make heinous crimes of the same nature protected and prosecutable as a hate crime, bringing stricter sentencing to the perpetrators. After many years in Congress, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act became law in 2009, officially designating offenses committed because of disability, gender, or sexual orientation, hate crimes.

This tragedy was the inspiration for “The Laramie Project,” a play first performed in 2000. Written by Moisés Kaufman in collaboration with 11 members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the play is based on hundreds of news reports, interviews, and journal excerpts from Laramie residents in the aftermath of Shepard’s death.

For its final show of 2016-2017 school year, the Brentwood Theater Company (BTC) brought “The Laramie Project” to Brentwood School.

“The BTC was looking for an ensemble piece that didn’t necessarily have any stars or leading roles,” said the play’s director. “The piece is ripe for what’s happening in the broader community with regards to discrimination and hate crimes. The BTC felt this was important for the Brentwood community to experience.”

In preparation for the performance, Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, was interviewed to provide perspective on the play, and members of Brentwood’s Pride Project organized a bake sale, donating all proceeds to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. All money from ticket sales was also given in support of the organization.

“The Laramie Project” is not a comfortable show. It employs the deeply offensive words spoken by Laramie residents to emphasize overwhelming homophobia.

“‘The Laramie Project’ deals with such heavy subject matter but such important subject matter to talk about,” said a BTC member and Co-President of Pride Project. “It loses impact if you get rid of the language.”

At the end of the show, a discussion was held to explore the play and its significance with the audience.

“I always like to do talk-backs, regardless of the material or content,” said the director. “I think that it’s really important for the audience to reflect and talk about what they’ve seen.”

In the wake of recent breaking news, like President Trump’s Twitter posts ostensibly banning transgender individuals from serving in our military, a performance that humanizes differences and warns against discrimination and violence can be an essential tool to sway public opinion and open dialogue.

The Brentwood Theater Company gave our community something meaningful and valuable to reflect on over the summer.

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