Emerging from tragedy

‘The Laramie Project’ gives rural America a spotlight in the LGBTQ conversation

Directed by Jennifer Thomas, the Peninsula Community Theater’s “The Laramie Project” featured actors William Belvin, Brian Cebian, Carly Murray, Carla Muton, Connor Norton, Missy Sullivan, Steven Suskin and Ashley Zadel. COURTESY OF MIKE DIANA

By Abby Saether

A small town in Wyoming, relatively unknown to the average person, became the center of attention after a horrific crime shook it to its core. “The Laramie Project” focused solely on this tragedy and was first performed in 2000 in Denver, Colo. by the Denver Center Theatre Company. It depicted one of the most original and intense portrayals of the hate crime committed in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming against Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. This singular event was extremely impactful in American history and still resonates today.

Newport News’s very own Peninsula Community Theater (PCT) put on this production right down the road from our campus. This was the first kind of performance I have ever seen done in this fashion. It was nothing short of amazing.

For instance, the set had a minimalistic design and did not go through any sort of scene changes (besides moving a few chairs around). The cast, composed of four men and four women, managed to keep their audience engaged almost entirely just based on the dialogue in a documentary style plot. This was quite the feet considering that the eight of them had to play the roles of more than thirty-two characters.

The play followed the tragic events of a murder committed in 1998 (in what was later identified as a hate crime against homosexuals). The Tectonic Theater Project (TTP) noticed the impact of this event and went to Laramie to hear the story first hand. Their organization captured the aftermath of how this brutal crime affected the little Wyoming town. Earlier, it had been mentioned how the cast had more than thirty two characters to portray. This is because the play follows a story line comprised of interviews with all walks of life from Laramie and practically every voice was represented within this performance creating a diverse collection of perspectives.

The stress on portraying these events accurately was obvious, but the way in which the play was written was dynamic and unique. Its unconventional method of storytelling brought more to the stage than the standard structure of playwriting.

COURTESY OF MIKE DIANA

In the small community theater, this cast was capable of conveying the gravity of the situation along with the importance of the overall message. They made the audience feel very personally involved and almost responsible. With the diversities of characters, anyone could find a character they related to, making it all the more personal.

In an especially striking scene, the entire cast mimicked the media, pointing microphones directly at the audience as if to say ‘what would you have done?’ You can only imagine how deeply moving and impactful this was.

I found that the performance leaves the audience reflecting on everything they witnessed and undoubtedly thinking about how this is all still relevant today. Although the play did not directly state it, the play is a call to action- a call for change.

In today’s world, the LGBTQ community is more vocal than ever before and has come a long way influencing policy and human rights within the government. It is astonishing to think that just twenty years ago such a violent murder had been committed in a town that thought nothing so evil could ever occur. It was heartwarming watching the residents of Laramie and members of the TTP grow in understanding and acceptance. More than anything, this tragedy brought people together and reminded them of the importance to love everyone regardless of sexual orientation.

The performers created strong emotional responses from their audience in a genuine and honest way. “The Laramie Project” forces audience members to reflect on the world around us and to work to make it better by learning to understand and accept everyone.

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