Friday, October 14, 2011

The Laboratory Theater of Florida Presents The Laramie Project

On October 6, 1998,  Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old kid attending the University of Wyoming, was kidnapped, beaten, and left to die tied up to a fence post in the countryside.   A jogger found his comatose body the next morning and he was rushed to the hospital.  Matthew Shepard died five days later without recovering consciousness.   The reason this happened was simple:  Matthew Shepard was gay. 

The Laramie Project tells the story of a town coping with the aftermath of this tragedy in the year after its occurrence.  Five weeks after Shepard's death, Moises Kaufman and The Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and began a series of interviews with over 200 townspeople.  The Laramie Project is written in a unique style, with eight actors portraying over 65 of the townspeople, including the perpetrators of the crime.  In most performances in which an actor plays multiple roles, changes in identity are made clear by differences in costumes, accents, and attitude.  While the actors in The Laramie Project do make minor changes in their appearances in their portrayals of different characters, you primarily know who is speaking because his or her identity is announced by one of the other actors.   This might sound a bit confusing, but it actually flows quite naturally and you begin to recognize some of the recurring characters as the play progresses.

The play explores the character of a town whose children--because the perpetrators were young men as well--would engage in this horrible crime.  One character laments that Laramie has joined the ranks of Waco and Columbine, with a single occurrence defining its identity.   There is a lot of truth to this statement, as The Laramie Project is frequently performed in high schools, colleges, and community theaters across the country to raise awareness about discrimination and hate crimes.  In fact, Charlotte High School was putting on the play the very evening that I saw The Laboratory Theater's performance.   The Tectonic Theater Project went back to Laramie ten years later and wrote an epilogue play that you can watch at http://laramieproject.org/.  (The Tectonic Theater Project website is worth poking around.  They do some really cutting edge and awareness raising work that is quite interesting to read about.) 

While doing a bit of reading about The Laramie Project, I learned that Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.   (James Byrd was an African-American man who was murdered in 1998 by three white supremacists who attacked him, wrapped a logging chain around his ankles, tied him to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him for three miles before he died).  The Act expanded upon the 1969 federal hate crimes law to cover crimes based on a person's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.   The Act also removes the prerequisite that the victim has to be engaged in a federally-protected activity, like voting or attending school, in order for the crime to be characterized as a hate crime.  Many, but not all, states have similar hate crime legislation. 

I would be remiss not to say a few words about Fort Myers' Laboratory Theater of Florida where I saw The Laramie Project.   The Theater is "dedicated to the development of the performing arts through live performances, education, community outreach, experimentation, and the development of ensemble work."  Their current venue is a Kiwanis Hall while they engage in a fundraising drive to build a permanent home in downtown Fort Myers.  Their plan is for the building to have glass walls so that local passersby will be exposed to what is going on there and, hopefully, drawn in.   This year's season includes a wide array of theater, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Romeo and Juliet to In the Next Room:  the Vibrator Play to Camus' The Plague.  I found the caliber of performance in The Laramie Project to be high level community theater.  The story was so engrossing, though, that I didn't mind the occasional misstep (although the woman who was constantly fussing with her bangs did drive me a bit crazy).  I applaud The Laboratory Theater for bringing some interesting theater choices to Southwest Florida, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find myself back in a seat in that Kiwanis Hall later this season.    

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