Anne Thiselton-Dyer, Arts Editor
// “That kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” This line is echoed by multiple Laramie residents and actors within the play, “The Laramie Project.” This line references the event that shocked Laramie Wyoming and the rest of America into confronting their values 21 years ago: the brutal beating and murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
If Matthew Shepard’s death was “not the kind of thing” that happened in rural Wyoming, then could it happen anywhere else? The Acalanes Dramadons’ production of “The Laramie Project” asks this question and attempts to prove that art functions not only to entertain, but also to educate and confront underlying prejudice.
“The Laramie Project” tells the story of the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s death. At the time, most Laramie residents did not consider their town particularly homophobic. So-called cowboy country was, allegedly, ‘live and let live.’
This mantra may resonate with many of the Bay Area’s liberal residents. The last decade was full of rapid social change in terms of legal rights and social acceptance. As seen through the diversity of social media and the ever-evolving rainbow of representation in media, it may appear as though most people no longer fear for their lives because of their differences.
“Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company, pretty much right after it happened, sent a team down to Laramie and they just started interviewing people,” director and Acalanes Drama teacher Ed Meehan said. “They interviewed the entire town and used those interviews as a basis for this play.”
The play is particularly unique in that the script is based completely off of those interviews and, unlike most plays, it is not a dramatization. The nature of the script of “The Laramie Project” gives a raw portrayal of how horrific violence forced issues out into the open that Wyomingites otherwise refused to acknowledge.
“Laramie wasn’t necessarily a place where it was super great to be open and gay, but there were a lot of gay people in that town,” Meehan said. “The play doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into the actual act or talking about the act, but it’s more about how to process what went on.”
Cast members recognize the significance of the subject matter and their own responsibility in the way they portray the real-life events.
“This play is certainly a lot heavier. It has more weight to it because it’s about such a touchy subject,” senior Brady Sugrue said. Surgue plays several different characters in the production, including Officer Reggie Fluty and director of the University of Wyoming theatre department, Rebecca Hilliker.
However, this is not the first time “Laramie” has come to Lamorinda. Miramonte High School put on the same production in 2006, in a community that was decidedly less open-minded than Acalanes is today. For Miramonte Drama teacher Heather Cousins, deciding on this performance was a risky decision.
“It is a real story, word for word. Because of this, we have a responsibility to get the story right,” Cousins said.
Despite LGBT+ topics not being the mainstream talking point they are today, the importance of the play outweighed the risk for the Miramonte administration.
“It’s hard to imagine now, but the play was considered to be controversial. I had a meeting with the principal and superintendent at the time to explain to them why it was important to do this play and they ultimately agreed,” Cousins said.
At the time, Acalanes had just started the peer education program. Ventures into positive LGBT+ awareness had only just begun to surface at Acalanes; they didn’t exist yet at Miramonte.
“It was more of an edgy thing to do then and more daring. We had just started peer education workshops here. They did start doing them there later, and so it was more kind of pushing the envelope,” Acalanes English teacher and Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) advisor Erik Honda said.
When QSA first started in 1997, the organization did not receive a positive reaction from the Acalanes community.
“There was a lot of negativity and hate crimes in my classroom, punching people in the hallways and straight pride flags, things like that. Pretty ugly. It’s not that way anymore,” Honda said.
“The Laramie Project” is not merely a story about a brutal murder, but rather one about how communities change. Acalanes is not exempt from that change. For one, the current administration completely supports the play and its subject matter.
“We just fully support the play and the students. And I do think that the Laramie project is a powerful piece of work that kind of stands in opposition to some of the current rhetoric that we’re seeing out there,” Acalanes Principal Travis Bell said.
Despite a mostly accepting community, cast members say they are prepared to deal with any backlash.
“I think we might get a little controversy around it, but overall, I think it’s such an important matter that it’s just, it’s okay. It’s just something we’re going to have to take head-on because it’s a very important issue,” Sugrue said.
Ultimately, the reaction to the production gauges how far the local community has come in terms of LGBT+ issues.
“On the surface, one can say that Acalanes is a fairly open and accepting place. We have a QSA and we have a number of students that are openly gay. That can give the impression that we’re a place that’s totally open to all people,” Meehan said. “But I don’t really believe that we truly are. I don’t know, but I’m not necessarily sure that it’s super easy to be a person in the LGBTQ community out in high school.”
Acalanes students and teachers still recognize some degree of harassment on campus despite progressive efforts to put an end to it.
“I think we need to talk about LGBT brutality in a high school setting because kids can get away with a lot. There’s so many people here that the actions that aren’t right are covered by the mass of the student body,” junior and Dramadon Evan Mirabella said.
Harassment may continue to plague the student body, and although Acalanes has become more accepting, this behavior still exists.
“I’m sure that in Laramie, they would admit that yes, homophobia exists. But they would also say, like we’re trying to say here, that it’s less that way–partly because of the play, partly because of Matthew Shepard and his mom and everything that was done after he died,” Honda said. “That’s a less homophobic place than it used to be. But we’re still a homophobic society. And so anybody that says we are not that way is just not looking.”
Theater is more than just entertainment, as it has the ability to raise awareness and promote social change, according to Cousins.
“I think it’s just relevant to a lived experience for some of our students. Obviously not to that scale, but I do think it provides a lens or insight into some of what our students and other members of our community experience,” Bell said.
The notion of confronting predjudice doesn’t only concern gay students or victims of bullying or violence. This idea can be applied to other social issues the Acalanes community may be more reluctant to talk about.
“Anti-gay prejudice is not gone from our society, from our school, but we’ve definitely made more progress on that than any other civil rights issue I can think of like sexism or racism,” Honda said.
“The Laramie Project” implies that communities must keep marching forward to become inclusive for all individuals, not solely in terms of LGBT+ issues, but on all fronts of sexism, racism, and more.
“This is a play not about an event, but how to process that event,” Meehan said. “How do we reconcile this and what does it mean moving forward?”