ARTS-INSPIRED ACTION: ‘The Laramie Project’ reminds us how far we have to go for acceptance

Jun 13 • ARTSY SMARTSY, FEATURE MAIN, VisualNo Comments on ARTS-INSPIRED ACTION: ‘The Laramie Project’ reminds us how far we have to go for acceptance

“I am not sleeping in Laramie!” I screeched. It was 2004. Jock and I were in a mack truck in a snowstorm, and he just announced we had to pull off the road. We didn’t have chains on the tires, and night was falling in the mountains.

ACTING UP: Amanda Young and Christine Brown perform in the powerful "The Laramie Project," opening this week. Photo by Tom Dorgan

ACTING UP: Amanda Young and Christine Brown perform in the powerful “The Laramie Project,” opening this week. Photo by Tom Dorgan

“What do you have against Laramie?” he asked in confused exasperation. He clearly thought I was just playing the contrary woman card.

“Matthew Shepard’s killing?” I shot back with venom, less than six years earlier, in October of 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten and tortured while tied to a fence and left for dead. He died a week later in ICU. His death and the aftermath of the town struggling with the events was chronicled in the play “The Laramie Project” by Moises Kaufman and The Tectonic Theater Project. Big Dawg has brought it back to the Wilmington stage during Pride Month. Indeed, one of the early laments of the show is that now Matthew Shepard’s death is all anyone knows about Laramie. But that’s not how the residents of Laramie define themselves.

“The Laramie Project” is an interesting approach to theatre. The Tectonic Theatre Company journeyed to the town six times in the year following Matthew’s death to conduct interviews with the townspeople. Excerpts from the interviews—including journal entries made during the process and additional material from public records (court transcripts, etc.)—make up the script. Directed by Josh Bailey, 12 performers bring to life the residents of Laramie, Matthew’s killers, and the Tectonic Theater Company: Susan Auten, Chris Brown, B’Ellana Duquesne, Jamie Harwood, Craig Myers, Beau Mumford, Michael Pipicella, Melissa Randall, Charlie Robertson, Holli Saperstein, Shawn Sproatt, and Amanda Young. The perimeter of the stage has monitors that show a variety of images from Laramie: the welcome sign at the edge of town, the fence where Matthew was found, the hospital where he was treated, the bar where he was last seen, to name but a few. Set designer Scott Davis has created columns of fractured rainbows to provide myriad entrances and exits for the cast. It makes a statement about what has really shattered and what is repairable, without overshadowing the performers. 

Speaking of shadows, “The Laramie Project” explores the shadows of human nature, memory and psychology, but Stuart Dennings’ lighting, too, often leaves the performer who is speaking in darkness—when the audience wants very much to see and connect with the speaker.

On the surface one assumes the show would be a celebration of Matthew Shepard or a gory retelling of his death. “The Laramie Project” avoids both easy pitfalls and instead creates an opportunity to meet, in their own words, a variety of people who are grappling with the unfolding realization of what has happened. So, yes, we do meet Russell Henderson (Pipicella) and Aaron McKinney (Mumford), the two young men who ended Matthew’s life prematurely. Their words from transcripts are used, as are recounted conversations from their friends and family. Perhaps of greater surprise and interest are the unexpected players in this: the person who found Matthew tied to the fence (Randall); Reggie Fluty (Young) who responded to the 9-1-1 call and tried to revive him; Father Schmidt (Myers), the Catholic priest who led the vigil; Reggie’s mother (Brown), the CEO of the hospital where Matthew received his palliative care (Robertson); the judge in the case (Saperstein); Dr. Cantway (Harwood), who saw Matthew in the emergency room and treated one of the perpetrators at the same time; the first openly gay staff at the University in Laramie (Auten); Zubaida Ula (Sproatt), a self-described Muslim feminist in Laramie;  and the detective (Duquesne) who investigated the case. All are but a drop in the bucket, as the performers bring 64 different characters to life during the course of the evening. Some are momentary: the bailiff in the courtroom, assorted reporters, etc., while others will stay with the audience for a long time to come. Robertson’s depiction of the hospital CEO, for example, brings tears to the eyes. Watching Mumford as the owner of Fireside—the bar Matthew left that fateful night, and Pipicella as the bartender who was one of the last people to see Matthew alive and well—feels like sitting on a knife’s edge because the guilt, confusion and anger both men feel is so awkward and real. I watched them and knew all the same awkward, second-guessing confusion would come to anyone wearing their shoes.

Auten’s depiction of daily life for an openly gay professional in the small Wyoming town is equally affecting: to feel like there’s a sign on you everywhere you go, which is the only thing anyone can see. She makes the surprise and palpable paranoia that comes with such an existence a good reminder that everyone is so much more than just one simple label—even people we want to simplify that way. Randall’s Romaine Patterson, one of Matthew’s best friends, really charts the course of hysterical pain to channeling it into something productive and positive. She makes it believable and identifiable. Somehow Craig Myers managed to snag some of the more colorful roles: Doc O’Connor, who owned a limousine service and drove Matthew to nearby Fort Collins, for example. Myers plays Doc as a colorful local guide and raconteur. He will rip out the audience’s heart as Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. But it is his recreation of the Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church—purveyor of hate—that is most affecting. To his credit, he channels the well-known demagogue and doesn’t hold back from spewing an awfulness that is Phelps’ life blood. It is painful to watch.

Though “The Laramie Project” focuses the lens specifically on the hate crime aspect of Matthew’s death, it does not shrink from exploring the economic disparity of Laramie and the class distinctions that contribute to “us vs. them.” It actually reminds me a lot of life in Boone, NC, where the biggest employer in the area is the university, and most professional positions go to people from out of town. Locals get hired in the cafeteria and as janitors. In addition, without belaboring it, the script explores the impact of different religious teachings in the area: the Baptist minister preaching against Matthew while he lies dying in the hospital; the Mormon church excommunicating Russell Henderson after he was sentenced for Matthew’s abduction and killing.

Since Matthew’s death his parents have worked tirelessly to get national hate crime legislation passed and to advocate for diversity and inclusion. In October 2009 the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed by Congress (then Sen. Jeff Sessions, now our attorney general, opposed it). President Barack Obama signed it into law. It was named in honor of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., an African American man who was the victim of a horrific lynching and murder by three white supremacists in Texas. However, North Carolina still does not have a hate-crime law that addresses crimes motivated by gender identity or sexual orientation biases. Surely, with all the publicity surrounding HB2, in the last two years in NC, it is clear we have work to do at home.

Any reader who sees “The Laramie Project” and is moved to join the struggle for equality for everyone should consider petitioning the NC General Assembly to fairly and fully represent all North Carolinians with protection and rights. The arts most definitely need support currently—even more so, its viewers and participants have power to make a real difference, one that would truly honor the spirit of the work. Here are the phone numbers for members of our general assembly:

Rep. Ted Davis Jr. (R-Dist. 9, NHC, 2017-18 session)

N.C. House of Representatives

300 N Salisbury Street, Room 417B

Raleigh, NC 27603-5925

919-733-5786/Ted.Davis@ncleg.net

Rep. Holly Grange (R-Dist. 20, NHC, session 2017-18)

Deputy Conference Leader

N.C. House of Representatives

300 N Salisbury Street, Room 604

Raleigh, NC 27603-5925

919-733-5830/Holly.Grange@ncleg.net

Rep. Deb Butler (D-Dist. 18, NHC and Brunswick; appointed 2/6/17)

N.C. House of Representatives

16 W Jones Street, Room 1424

Raleigh, NC 27601-1096

919-733-5754/Deb.Butler@ncleg.net

Sen. Michael V. Lee (R-Dist. 9, NHC, 2017-18 session)

N.C. Senate

300 N Salisbury Street, Room 408

Raleigh, NC 27603-5925

(919) 715-2525/Michael.Lee@ncleg.net

Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Dist. 8, NHC, Brunswick, Bladen, Pender, 2017-18 session)

N.C. Senate

16 W. Jones Street, Room 2010

Raleigh, NC 27601-2808

(919) 733-5963/Bill.Rabon@ncleg.net

DETAILS:
The Laramie Project
June 15-18, 22-25
8 p.m. or Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$22
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
www.bigdawgproductions.org

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