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Facing Hate

A town. A tragedy. A time to heal. Will we see ourselves in Laramie?

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He looks like the type of guy who might call someone a fag. He could be someone you know. Or even you.

He looks like a character who could have stepped out of the play he is directing, "The Laramie Project." That's because this is a story that reflects the people who surround us every day. A Baptist minister. A cab driver. A lawyer. This is "Our Town" for our times, St. Peter says.

But this story started with a tragedy.

"Laramie," written in 1998, was inspired by a theater company's trip from New York to Wyoming one month after Matthew Shepard had been murdered. Shepard, a gay college student, had been beaten savagely, tied to a fence and left to die by two boys his own age whom he'd met at a bar. Residents of Laramie were shaken.

The group, Tectonic Theater Project, interviewed the townspeople to learn what the community was like and what its people were thinking and feeling in the aftermath. And that is the play: the impersonation of 60 real townspeople speaking their minds in a stripped-down, documentary-style format. Through their voices we hear every side of the story. We even hear our own opinion, and we're left to decide how it sounds.

Laramie is a reflection of America, says St. Peter, 32, who earned his Master of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University and last year was recognized as an outstanding young artist by the Princess Grace Foundation. Also, it seems that America is seeing its reflection in "Laramie." According to American Theater magazine, "Laramie" was the second-most-produced play of 2001-2002. The New York Times recently reported that many universities are using it as a catalyst to start discussions about homophobia and the treatment of difference in American society.

The question is: How will Richmond react to this real-life story? Will we use it as a catalyst, to examine our own community, and our humanity?

"Change is not an easy thing, and I don't think people were up to it here."

— Jonas Slonaker, gay man

"When I first read it I got the feeling of tingles all over my body," recalls actress Sara Heifetz. "You know when you just can't move?"

Another cast member, actor Scott Wichmann, says it wasn't until he heard it read aloud that he felt the impact of the script. In December, the actors presented a read-through of the play at TheatreVirginia to gain support and generate excitement for the upcoming production.

There were questions about whether Richmond was ready. Producing Artistic Director Benny Sato Ambush and St. Peter felt some resistance from TheatreVirginia board members when they proposed the play. "The kind of eyebrow-raising that occurred when this play was announced just proves that it needs to be put on," Ambush says.

St. Peter makes the point more strongly.

"If ['The Laramie Project'] pisses people off that's great," he says. "Sometimes you don't just have to bring a mirror to things, you have to bring a hammer, too."

At the December reading, while audience members listened, their faces registered amusement, horror, query. One streamed with tears.

Miriam Friedland had reason to cry. She is the executive director of Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (ROSMY), a nonprofit support, education and advocacy group for 14- to 21-year-olds who identify themselves as gays, lesbians or bisexuals. Any of her youths easily could have been Shepard, who was 21 when he died. "The way he was killed is just so horrible," says Friedland, who focused on juvenile and civil rights in law school before joining ROSMY.

She hopes "Laramie" will bring a broader awareness to the community — and maybe, change. "What starts as teasing to little kids can escalate to assaults and damage to property, because sexual minorities don't fit into society's norms," Friedland says.

There is a strong gay community in Richmond, she says, but hate crimes against sexual minorities do happen here, like the one five years ago when a gay homeless man was beaten and decapitated. And one evening last September, a group of Virginia Commonwealth University students on their way to a meeting of the Sexual Minority Student Alliance were attacked outside the student commons. One girl suffered a black eye and broken nose. The attackers were 18 and 19 years old.

Friedland also hopes the play will help underscore that Virginia does not have hate-crime legislation to cover crimes against sexual minorities (rather, race- and religion-based hate crimes). And such crimes happen here. The state of Virginia reported 51 hate crimes against sexual minorities in 2001. Still, the crimes weren't prosecuted under hate-crime legislation as they would have been if they had been committed on federal land.

St. Peter, too, hopes "Laramie" will do more than tell a story. He sees the play as his chance to participate in a national dialogue. He believes gay rights will be the next civil-rights movement. Beyond that, he believes "Laramie" is simply a good play.

"As I told you before, homosexuality is not a lifestyle with which I agree. Um, but having been thrown into this, I guess I didn't understand the magnitude with which some people hate."

— Rulon Stacey, Mormon, CEO of Poudre Valley Hospital

For all the weightiness of the subject matter in "Laramie," there is no preaching. Eight actors play 60 characters, and their opinions come in all shapes and biases. From a Baptist minister, to a lesbian who was friends with Matthew, to a girlfriend of one of the killers, each speaks his or her mind.

For this play, St. Peter is particularly concerned that actors know their lines word-for-word; ad-libbing is not allowed because all lines are actual quotes from people. "They're beautiful words spoken by real people," St. Peter tells them. "I'm always surprised by the eloquence of real people."

Judgment isn't passed; it is left to the audience. And because the play captures the words of real people, they don't always say the right thing. Sometimes they contradict themselves. Other times they stumble onto something profound. But most importantly, their ideas give us something to take home and think about.

Not only do the Laramie residents have opinions about homosexuals, but the New York actors have preconceived notions about Wyoming and the town of Laramie. At one point in the play, two of the company's actors, who are gay, expect the worst as they go to interview a Catholic priest. They are surprised at how sympathetic he is.

Even though Shepard's murder took place in 1998, the issues are still current and the characters are real and alive.

One of them, Fred Phelps, a minister from Kansas who traveled to Laramie to protest Shepard's funeral, now travels the country to protest productions of "Laramie." Earlier in March, he and members of his church were in Fredericksburg to protest a performance at Mary Washington College. They held signs that read "Matt in Hell" and "Death Penalty for Fags." (At press time, Phelps' Web site did not include Richmond as a stop on his protest.)

Laramie is simply a town like any other. The community struggles to make sense of a tragedy, something that's supposed to happen in some other town, leaving the audience to consider — what if something like this happened here?

Most local gay advocacy groups seem to agree that more dialogue will benefit Richmond.

Local gay-rights activist Guy Kinman says Richmond has made great progress in the past 20 years, largely because most people in Richmond now know a gay man or a lesbian. But Richmond also has a lot of strong religious communities, many of whom believe homosexuality is wrong. "The problems I see in Richmond are because of some people's interpretation of religion," he says.

ROSMY's Friedland agrees. "It will be important for some of the more faith-based communities to witness these heartbreaking anecdotes of how this community changed," she says. Apparently, they're interested. Barksdale/Theatre IV Group Sales Manager Robert Albertia says many church groups have reserved blocks of tickets.

"We knew immediately that this was something we wanted to see done in Richmond," says Bruce Miller, artistic director of Barksdale/Theatre IV. When TheatreVirginia closed earlier this year, Miller's company offered to produce the play.

"Laramie" is a wonderful piece of art," Miller says. "The notion that a theater company would be hesitant to do this just makes my eyes roll back in my head. It's a great play, and we're honored to do it."

Miller, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church, has participated in his church's discussions about a Christian response to homosexuality for years. "I don't think it is a shocking play or a liberal play," he says. "I think it's a play about human decency."

That's why his company is marketing the play to the broadest possible audience, he says."We do not view it as a 'gay play,'" he says. "We hope that people of all political stripes will come and find a lot of thought-provoking ideas presented in a compelling way." The Barksdale Theatre and Triangle Players, co-producers of the play, have scheduled five "talk-back" panel discussions to take place after performances to inspire community conversation.

"If you would have asked me before, I would have told you, Laramie is a beautiful town. … A town with a personality that most larger cities are stripped of. Now, after Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime."

— Jedadiah Schultz, university student

"The Laramie Project" offers more challenges for the actors than the average play, but it's perhaps more accessible for audiences. Its "presentational" style is perfect for theater naysayers who insist that theater is too contrived for them. This means that the set is clearly a stage, cables exposed, with a couple of enhancements.

"I think that this is a play that can be put on in the parking lot with 25 bucks," St. Peter says.

The costumes simply help suggest characters. A scarf becomes a belt then a headband, and later an apron. Because performers are portraying actors who are telling a story through impersonations, the roles are demanding and require the skill of subtlety. The show is fast-paced; some actors play as many as three characters in a minute.

It's also politically provocative, says Dorothy Holland, a veteran local actor and University of Richmond theater professor, because in one moment an actor can be portraying a hate-filled killer and that same actor's body can then morph into a sympathetic character. "We see that much of our social behavior is performance, that you can change by taking on different behaviors," Holland says.

Scott Wichmann has experience playing multiple personalities. Last year he played 41 of them in the Barksdale's production of the one-man show, "Fully Committed."

"You try to find a hook for each one," he says, "a voice or a physicality, a gesture."

In these characters, audience members may see themselves. In turn, that may inspire some to change. "There are varying arguments as to whether you can change the world through theater," St. Peter tells his actors. "I happen to think you can, otherwise I wouldn't be here."

And it seems that no matter how many times one sees "Laramie," the script is moving in unexpected ways. During a run-through a week and a half before opening night, St. Peter tears up three times.

It's rare that a play speaks to the times. "The Laramie Project" not only speaks to the issues of today, it addresses them in a format that's digestible to today's youth. "It really does represent a snapshot of where we are today," St. Peter says. "We're on the cusp of some big-time changes." S



The Barksdale Theatre and the Richmond Triangle Players present "The Laramie Project" March 14-29 at the Empire Theater, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $10-$32 and can be purchased at the box office or by calling 282-2620.


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