'Laramie Project' connects stage to social ills

The arts can shed light on social problems, but rarely does a region like this one have so much need for clarity and thoughtful response to its recent history. From the JonBenet Ramsey case to the Littleton High School massacre and the Matthew Shepard murder in nearby Laramie, Wyo., this area has endured much grief in recent years. And while there have been public outpourings of support for victims' families, the communities have suffered, too, and the reactions have often been angry and confused.

Stupid TV movies, talk shows, and documentaries have exploited the Ramsey case, but Denver's regional theater has addressed the issue of Shepard's murder more thoughtfully. The Denver Center Theatre Company produced "The Laramie Project," a play compiled, created, and performed by the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project.

It has helped viewers put hate crime in perspective. The play has garnered national attention. It next previews in New York, beginning April 25, at the off-Broadway Union Square Theatre, officially opening May 18.

Playwright Moiss Kaufman (who most recently wrote "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde") and members of his Tectonic Theater Project undertook a year-long process of gathering more than 200 interviews from members of the Laramie community, many of whom feared their town would become as infamous for gay-bashing as Waco, Texas, did for cult violence. The 12 writers involved in the project under Mr. Kaufman's direction workshopped versions of the script in New York and at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah before the Denver world premire.

" 'The Laramie Project' asks: 'How can theater relate to current events?' " wrote Kaufman in his notes for the play. Every project Tectonic undertakes has a two-fold mission, to examine the subject at hand and to explore theatrical language and form, he says.

Compiling, refining, and dramatizing actual statements by people, including their genuine horror over the crime, Tectonic explores and broadens the meaning of authorship and collaboration in the theater.

Eight of the writers, who appear as themselves, also portray Laramie citizens as they struggle with their own misgivings about their society, their community, and the social disillusionment: "It couldn't happen here," but it did. The Laramie religious community reflected the diversity of the whole community - a few very conservative Christians demonstrating at Shepard's funeral, but the vast majority denounced the murder and the hate that led to it.

In the third act of the play, we hear of the trial of (eventually convicted killer) Russell Henderson, followed by the trial of his accomplice, Aaron McKinney. Shepard's parents argue against the death penalty (both men are serving life sentences). The details of Shepard's brutal death are grim, but not sensationalized. Eye-witnesses recount finding him along a lonely highway, administering first aid, and dealing with their own grief and fear.

Though there are moments in the play that almost sentimentalize Shepard's life, a genuine optimism about human goodness pervades the piece - a recognition that evil is not beyond remedy, if we as a society are ready to renounce hate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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