Fresh off his directorial duties for the warmly-received D.C. premiere of the play, “Veils,” Courtney Baker-Oliver, co-founder of Restoration Stage, Inc., brings a production replete with “teachable moments” to the auditorium of Suitland High in District Heights for two shows, Nov. 21 and 22, with the curtain rising both evenings at 7 p.m.
The play, “The Laramie Project,” while far afield of the more Afrocentric-themed, originally-written works produced by Restoration Stage to which theater enthusiasts in the Greater Washington Area have grown familiar and supported, shares scenes from the life of a bold college student in rural Wyoming, 1998 — victimized, beaten and left to die simply because of his sexual identity.
Matthew Shephard, on whose life and murder the play’s based, lost his life because he stood boldly and openly gay in a case that remains one of nation’s most unforgettable examples of hate crimes against gays and led to demands for legislation which now guarantees their protection and equality under the law.
Still, as the production’s opening approached, a once-barely audible buzz has allegedly grown louder voiced by some parents, educators and activists uncomfortable with if not opposed to the play, given its controversial theme and issues.
However, when juxtaposed against the rash of recent and disturbing assaults and murders in the District targeting the LGBTQ community, the play brings another opportunity for sorely-needed awareness and education so that America’s “and justice for all” mantra rests in reality — not held captive in the rhetorical realm.
The Roots of ‘Laramie Project’
“The Laramie Project” serves as a documentary-style play by Moises Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project, an experimental company whose work often touched on social themes. For the production, the Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York to Laramie just four weeks after Shepard’s death. There, they interviewed dozens of townspeople, collecting a wide array of different perspectives on the crime. The dialogue and monologues that comprise “The Laramie Project” would be taken from those interviews, along with news reports, courtroom transcripts and journal entries.
In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a piece of legislation that strengthens existing hate crime laws. Since first produced in 2000, “The Laramie Project” has become a popular work of theater, often used in schools to teach tolerance and inclusivity. The playwright would later write a sequel dealing with the legacy of the Shepard murder, 10 years later.
Director’s Musings: Lessons Gleaned from Laramie
The play’s director says he vividly recalls how responses and outrage about Shephard’s death soon dominated conversations on Howard’s campus — his temporary home as he completed requirements for his degree in his stead as a student teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District.
“I was accustomed to hearing [my colleagues] discuss the latest innovation in various fields or the famous person with whom they’d had dinner the night before — even analyzing the progress of their favorite author’s latest novel,” Baker-Oliver said. “But something fundamental shifted that fall when word of the Shepherd case went viral. It was all they could talk about.”
Perhaps it was the school’s diverse student population or the diversity of the larger community of artists from which the staff at Ellington had emerged but the attack on Matt Shepherd felt personal to us. And everyone was asking the same question: “how would we keep our students safe?”
As Baker-Oliver acknowledges, today’s youth live in an era where the acceptance of differences and diversity within the American landscape have morphed from a seat of absurdity if not, in some instances illegal, to being so commonplace that all Americans, differences notwithstanding, confidently assume that one’s safety and equal treatment under the law can now be expected.
“Playwright Moises Kaufman wrote, ‘there are moments in history when an event brings various ideologies and beliefs prevailing in a culture into sharp focus. The brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd was an event of this kind which brought to the surface how we think about privileges and rights and the difference between tolerance and acceptance,’” Baker-Oliver said.
“Kaufman was right. Matthew’s murder was a moment. And like the racially-motivated murder of Emmett Till a half-century earlier, it must be recognized as a reminder of the high price we all pay when we chose to hate what we do not understand rather than accept the differences between us with grace.”
“There is much more work to do but it is my fervent hope that this production challenges each of us to assess how we show up in an ever-broadening world inclusive of diverse perspectives — even those in which we do not personally believe.”
“Matthew Shepherd died because of intolerance. No one else should have to,” he said.
“The Laramie Project” can be seen Nov. 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. for both performances. Tickets can be purchased at the door, Suitland High School Auditorium, 5200 Silver Hill Road, District Heights, MD.