“The Laramie Project” focuses on community grappling with hate crime

From April 13 – 15 as part of Geneseo’s Queer Theatre Festival, students will perform “The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project at the KnightSpot. Geneseo’s production is codirected by senior Brian Clemente and English and theatre professor Melanie Blood.

“The Laramie Project” explores the events that brought sudden national attention to Laramie, Wyo., when gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was beaten and killed by two fellow Laramie youths in 1998. The play is based on over 200 interviews compiled by members of the Tectonic Theatre Project over the course of six visits to Laramie.

The story of a compassionate and radiant Shepard shapes the stories of others. Community members with differing relationships to Shepard offer a range of perspectives on his death, the trial of the accused and the event’s national implications.

The interviewees’ individual perspectives coalesce in the play to create a fuller image of Laramie and its people. Many speak delicately in their interviews, clearly skeptical of how the theater company will represent them and their city.

Some interviewees insist their comfortable city of Laramie has a “live and let live” attitude, and Shepard’s death was a rare and unforeseeable tragedy. Others make the impassioned argument that the homophobic implications of Shepard’s death cannot be swept under the rug.

The staging of simple black chairs is sparse, but the minimalist setting allows for stark transitions without the focus shifting from the storyline. Actors must similarly navigate between multiple roles, shifting instantly from being outsiders in the theater group to citizens of Laramie.

Actors use a visual cue, such as a hat or headscarf, to help distinguish between roles. Though shifts in character sometimes occur within the same scene, the actors’ consistent performances help prevent disorientation.

Particular poignancy comes from Laramie deputy sheriff Reggie Fluty, depicted with strength and vulnerability by junior Emily McDevitt. Fluty is exposed to HIV while attempting to revive Shepard at the crime scene and is forced to balance her personal health with the moral weight of her experience with Shepard.

University of Wyoming student Aaron Kreifels, played by sophomore Christa Sousa, had no personal relationship with Shepard but was shaken by his death. Kreifels, who comes across a battered and barely-alive Shepard while biking, believes that God sent her so Shepard wouldn’t have to die alone. Shepard’s funeral service is a particularly stirring scene. It highlights the powerfully divergent views of close friend Romaine Patterson (sophomore Alicia Frame) and anti-gay reverend and protestor Fred Phelps (sophomore David Sak).

Some perspectives, however, can change and widen as a result of tragedy. This is evident in the stories of limousine driver Doc O’Connor and student actor Jedadiah Schultz, played by senior Brandon DeFilippis and freshman Patrick Wood, respectively. Both reflect on the ways that Shepard’s story shook their views of Laramie.

With three acts and two 10-minute intermissions, “The Laramie Project” remains vibrant through the final scene. Though Shepard himself is not portrayed in the play, his story and the story of Laramie is a clear and profound one. It is a story of prejudice and violence, but it is also a story of community and resounding hope.