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'Laramie Project' a catalyst for dialogue


The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at the Weekend Theater image
  • 'THE LARAMIE PROJECT: TEN YEARS LATER': Sally Graham, Johnnie Brannon, Regi Ott and, seated, Alan Douglas star in The Weekend Theater's production.

"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," now playing at The Weekend Theater, is an addendum to the original Laramie Project. In 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old, openly gay University of Wyoming student was robbed, tied to a fence post and beaten to death by a couple of acquaintances. Afterwards, members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project interviewed Laramie community members and university professors, as well as Matthew Shepard's friends, family and the men who murdered Shepard. Those interviews were compiled in a script and performed by a small cast, often with nothing but a quick intro, accent change or prop to distinguish among characters. This updated show follows the same structure, but the script is based on interviews occurring a decade after the crime.

It's an interesting premise — art based on journalism, per se, that isn't burdened by journalism principles of non-bias and accurate presentation. You hear the words of those closest to the crime, but you can't read their body language, expressions and intonations. Instead, you see an actor's interpretation of those words, which brings an entirely different insight.

Alan Douglas, who plays, among other characters, a priest and a Republican congressman, gives an unmistakably queer performance. Throughout the play, his gestures are feminine, his accent affected — he hits all the gay cliches. It implicates the underlying theoretical queerness of many institutions. Queer simply means a deviation from the politically/socially defined norm. Catholic priests are asexual, pledging their allegiance in body and mind to God alone. They are the ultimate patriarchal figures, yet they are emasculated, and their lifestyle is unconventional. Bipartisan politics represent a deviation, either right or left of center. One of Shephard's killers is Mormon. Mormonism, with its acceptance of polytheism, its concept of blood atonement, and its mandated missionary journey, is a deviation from social norms. Were "The Laramie Project" a filmed documentary, the priest might not come across as effeminate and the congressman might not come across as a southern dandy, because possibly, that's not who these people are. Having these real folks portrayed as characters highlights the cycles of queerness we all exist in, every day. Understanding that queerness — our personal queerness, which may not be based on sex or gender — is crucial to restructuring deep-rooted thought patterns that lead to contempt and ultimately, hate crimes.

In "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," Laramie comes across as a backwoods, low-income town, with an agriculture university serving as a liberal bastion and a haven for alternative lifestyles (at least among faculty). It's a recognizable place, as a town where many of us might have lived or worked. Town opinion is mixed, but people of all shades are weary of being defined by this single incident. Sometimes Shepard's murder is understood as something less shameful and more empathetic than a hate crime — a drug related robbery gone bad. Surprisingly, the cops come off as more progressive than local and national media.

"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" is an excellent catalyst for discussion and further research. Afterwards, you'll want to know more about Matthew Shepard and Laramie, Wyoming. You'll want to know more about civil rights, hate crimes, LGBT politics and queer theory. The changing characters were a bit confusing, and some actors were better than others, but overall, The Weekend Theater manages an engaging performance. Thus far, it also promises to be a popular performance. Saturday's performance was sold out, and the crowds was diverse — a range of ages, attire and (displayed) sexual preference.

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