The Laramie Project is Moisés Kaufman’s play about the tragic death of Matthew Shepard and the events that surrounded his murder in Laramie, Wyoming. The 1998 murder of this University of Wyoming gay student made national news and left the towns people of Laramie in the center of a media firestorm. Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project made repeated trips to Laramie for more than a year and they eventually interviewed over 200 people. These interviews and the recitation of the words spoken and recorded form the basis of this play.
It starts shortly after Matt Shepard’s nearly lifeless body was discovered and encompasses the arrest of the two men that perpetrated this hate crime, Shepard’s eventual death from his horrible wounds and subsequent funeral. In the funeral scene the Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas is portrayed. The play goes on to cover the trial, conviction and subsequent commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment of Shepard’s two attackers, at Matt’s parents request. A brief epilogue closes this nearly three-hour play.
Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School produced this performance of The Laramie Project. Their performance run only encompassed four shows. The first two on Thursday and Friday conflicted with the Cardinals. Late this week, the school district published a letter informing parents, students and faculty that they had been informed that the Westboro Baptist Church planned to protest the play.
If you have not heard of these awful, awful people, Westboro loves to protest at the funerals of fallen American service people. They hold up signs that say that it was God’s will that this soldier was killed, because this country condones homosexuality. Many of their placards are much blunter and cruder. I saw this for myself today. Westboro has actually made a business from being so offensive. No one wants them to appear and may municipalities have tried to limit their freedoms of religion, association and speech. They sue, win and collect punitive damages that fund their church. Another Saint Louis municipality, Manchester, is currently in litigation over these arguments.
Rather than try to limit these people, Maplewood decided to fight fire with fire. A counter demonstration was organized and Anne let me know that in no uncertain terms we were going. “But Honey, what about the basement?” Why do I try, more importantly, why do I even question her wisdom. We had a great time. The morning’s gloom had cleared and bright blue skies greeted us. By my unscientific count there were at least 200 people on our side, maybe more. I counted and recounted Westboro’s half-a-dozen.
Like I said, we had a great time. We met old friends. Anne introduced me to more people than I could keep track of and we had a party. We had signs that spoke of love and acceptance and we had all of the best songs. We sang America the Beautiful, Kum bay ya and Imagine. We rocked! Meanwhile across the football field the half-dozen visitors were fenced in by traffic cones and enough police to go man-to-man, and still keep the bench warm.
After the rally we went in to see the matinée performance. By MRH standards the cast was huge, twenty students and four teachers. Even so, most of the cast had to double or triple up to cover the sixty plus characters. On Friday, at work, I was trying to describe this gathering storm to one of my co-workers. He dabbles in Community Theater, so I thought that he would be sympathetic. This was not to be. He recommended Guys and Dolls. Maybe he is just partial to musical theater? He has a good voice. As a MRH taxpayer, I am extremely pleased with this production.