“The Laramie Project” Inspires All

By Mara Shapiro

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Right away, I knew that “The Laramie Project” was going to be a poignant show because of its subject matter. For those of you who don’t know the basis, it is about a college boy named Matthew Shepard who was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 because he was gay.  However, I didn’t know how the actors were going to convey this tragedy. Not only did they enunciate their lines well, provide the appropriate motions and gestures, but most of all  they gave the audience a feeling of empathy and sympathy all at the same time.

The play started off with a lone chair, a brown coat strewn upon  it, and a big blue and black sign with a cowboy that read “Wyoming, like no place on Earth.”  The first speaker, the Laramie sheriff, played by junior Julian Fontelera, discusses the tragedy of Shepard and how it has changed the small town. Every actors’ lines are taken from the Tectonic theatre troup’s real life interviews conducted in order to form the original play. The first part of the play focused on the townspeople and their ways of life. A little bit of humor was added to the play during the interview of Marge Murphy (senior Emma Zivkovic) a mother who discusses her life in the town and how people react to gay people there. When talking about her bartending days, Murphy says that her being the best around is “fact, not bragging,” and the way Zivkovic took over this woman’s life was incredible. She made me laugh, but at the same time one of the sentences she said made me uneasy. Murphy stated that if someone saw a gay person in a bar and that person tried to talk or flirt with a straight person, that the straight person would “smack one in the face.” The word that made me rewind the sentence in my head was “one.” That a nice enough woman chose to not say “him” or “her,” but “one,” like a gay person is a rare species of bird, gave a glimpse into the people’s views on homosexuals.

The play then continued with some biographical information about Shepard, how he came from money and how he loved politics and talking with others. Specifically, a friend of Shepard’s named Romaine, played by freshman Thea Gonzales discusses Shepard’s life and her desire to fight against hate crimes. She even organizes an angels event when protesters with anti-gay signs show up during the media takeover after Shepard’s attack. It was extremely, extremely disturbing to see my peers screaming anti-gay sentiments at the audience. Of course, even more disturbing was  the recount of the attack. Senior Alex Wood and junior Yassir Dasser played the murderers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, respectively. Dasser’s jail cell interview was in all honesty some of the best theatre acting I have ever seen. The hatred and anger that he portrayed, the total lack of remorse, sickened me.

Dasser’s performance, along with that of senior Rudy Newman, who played Matthew’s dad, were my personal favorites. Mr. Shepard’s decision to not inflict the death penalty on McKinney was a truly heartwrenching performance. That Newman could act like a grieving father, and make it so believable, was incredible. You could see in him the real Mr. Shepard and how hard that decision must have been for him 14 years ago. Another amazing performance was done by senior Drake Nickell, who played the boy who found Shepard tied to a fence after being beaten by McKinney. His anguish and desire to help Shepard was projected so well and so full of guilt and emotional struggle. You could see him shouting “wake up” to an imaginary Shepard, and put yourself into that horrific position.

Though this play was heartbreaking, it wasn’t without some funny moments. For example, junior Surdeep Chauhan played the bartender (Matthew Galloway) of the bar where Shepard was last seen alive. He discusses how it was impossible for the claim that  Matthew was  hitting on Henderson and McKinney, because out of all the guys there, Galloway was obviously the best option. It felt good to genuinely laugh at this part because the whole time you wanted to rewind back to that bar and get Matthew to safety. Junior Susy Montoya- Quinchia played a Muslim girl who showed how the people of Laramie really weren’t well educated when it came to different people, hence them not understanding her hijab. She made light out of the ignorance.

“The Laramie Project” truly gave an insightful portrayal of Matthew’s murder. It showed how people would write homophobic letters to Matthew’s doctor (Chauhan), how people would protest, and even showed a darker side of Matthew, discussing how he had HIV and that he possibly could have given it to the policewoman (senior Merrick McWherter) who showed up on the scene trying to help his wounds.  I was appalled by the actions of some of the people of Laramie and Shepard’s murder but was floored by how incredible all the actors were. They all must have had to tap into pretty dark places to come off so emotionally raw, and it showed. I looked around the audience and saw the pained expressions on teenagers and adults’ faces. People actually cried. I think that’s a true sign of great theatre, getting  people to cry. It’s easy enough to make people laugh, or fake laugh, but to get people to shed tears is tough to do. The standing ovation showed how impressed the audience was, and congratulations to theatre director Andrew Sinclair and the cast and crew for a truly phenomenal job. This is definitely in my top West theatre productions, and I hope the West community learned valuable lessons from this play.