Is it possible for communities to find peace after acts of hate? And how can individuals persevere over bigotry and violence? Those are two questions to be explored during The Catholic University of America’s production of The Laramie Project, taking place in Hartke Theatre’s Callan Theatre Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.
Based on more than 200 interviews by Moises Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theatre Project, The Laramie Project depicts the many varied reactions of the residents of Laramie, Wyoming, in the months following the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was kidnapped, beaten, and left to die while tied to a fence. His murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation, eventually leading to the 2009 passing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The Catholic University production, directed by Matt Ripa, academic specialist, will be performed in the round, with nine actors from the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and the Arts portraying nearly 64 characters.
Ripa said the Department of Drama chose to perform The Laramie Project this year in honor of the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death. Even though the events of the play took place decades ago, Ripa believes the play is just as relevant today.
“I don’t want this to feel like a history play. Hate crimes still happen,” he said, citing recent events like the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the Kroger’s shooting in Kentucky, and the 22 murders of transgender people that have taken place in 2018.
“This play is about how a murder like that could happen and how a community can heal and change because of an incident like that,” he said. “I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned about how we as people label some as ‘others’, and how that label of ‘other’ can lead to violence and dehumanization of groups of people who aren’t like us.”
Patrick Tuite, the associate dean of graduate studies and production for the School of Music, Drama, and Art, said the department chose to produce the play as a way to “focus on Catholic social teaching in regards to the protection of marginalized populations in our society.”
“We want this production to highlight what Pope Francis has stated concerning the protection of people whom the dominant social structures tend to isolate,” Tuite said. “This is especially important when considering the violence we have witnessed in the past two years that experts attribute to racial prejudice and stereotypical representations of immigrant populations.”
Directing the production has been a moving experience for Ripa, who was in high school when the Matthew Shepard murders took place. At the time he was coming to terms with his own sexuality and the murder instilled a lot of fear. As part of the preparations for the play, he said he has tried to help students understand what the political climate was like in 1998, a time before the majority of the actors were born.
John Jones, a junior drama and architecture double major from Cream Ridge, N.J., said he first heard about Shepard when he was around ten years old. At the time he was being bullied for being gay and the story helped him understand the potential dangers that could mean.
“I was hesitant to audition for this play because I found so many of the viewpoints of characters of the town problematic. Many are dismissive and standing in the middle ground, trying to remain ignorant to the ‘issue’ that queer individuals pose in communities,” Jones said. “While these perspectives don't seemingly pose a threat, it is a complacency that allows hate to thrive within a community.”
Jones said he hopes the play will start a conversation about the weight of words and complacency and the power of speaking out for human rights.
“Ignoring a problem does not solve a problem, and I'm proud to be part of a department that poses questions to make change here within our university,” he said.
Annaliese Neaman, a senior drama major from Ellicott City, Md., said she thinks the play is an important one for audiences to see “because it shows multiple perspectives of an issue, and I think that is something we do not get to see a lot of today.”
“Most students my age have never had to question whether or not an attack on a minority should be considered a hate crime. There is seemingly no contest,” she said. “Through working on this play, I have learned the history of hate crimes legislation, and have a new appreciation for the work the Shepard family has done in getting Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr’s law enacted.”
The play has also challenged her as an actor, she said.
“We are really pushed vocally, physically, and emotionally to portray so many different characters with little to no transition time,” she said. “This experience has made me more empathetic, bold, and confident as an actor and human.”
Performances will take place in Hartke Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE, Washington, D.C., on Nov. 29, 30, and Dec. 1, at 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 1 and 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission; $15 for Catholic University alumni, faculty and staff, seniors, and members of the military; or $10 for students. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.