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Lessons from Green Valley’s “Laramie Project”

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Green Valley High School theater students on stage for Friday night’s performance of “The Laramie Project.”
Photo: Laura Davis

Drama and lawsuits are just the things to make high school theater more exciting, and both erupted over Green Valley High School’s undertaking of The Laramie Project, which played last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Other than its basic retelling of the Matthew Shepard story and that my 17-year-old brother was playing one of Shepard’s murderers, I didn’t know what to expect from Laramie.

As far as the legal action surrounding the production, I assumed that people were overreacting. Despite it being 2009 (a full 11 years after Shepard’s murder near Laramie, Wyoming) the controversial play still managed to rile parents and get everyone’s panties in a wad. I wondered if some of the fuss was warranted. Did this play really push the limits? Should I be concerned that my little brother was involved? I figured I should find out.

While there were no crazed, sign-waving parents outside the theater on Friday night, it was apparent right away that this was different from your typical high school play. The parking lot of Green Valley High School was full at 7 p.m., and the theater itself was packed without an empty seat in sight. (I pre-purchased my ticket, and, for once, this seemed like a necessary precaution). Instead of the attendees being mainly teenage classmates and parents holding flowers for their future Broadway stars, the crowd was older and more diverse. All the commotion had actually had a positive effect. Instead of deterring people, it had drawn an audience who would never before have thought to spend their Friday night in a high school theater. I overheard one such man say to a fellow attendee that he was in town from Canada, and instead of going to a show on the strip he had heard all The Laramie Project uproar and decided to come here instead.

As for all the uproar, there was no reason for it: No boy-on-boy kissing. No political agenda. The play was tasteful and well-done, focusing not only on gay rights, but on human rights. Instead of being a reenactment of the tragic event, the story took on the entire town of Laramie. Shepard’s story was told in hindsight through a series of “moments,” and featured interviews with different members of the community who knew Shepard or were involved in the murder in some way. It was intense and emotional at times, but never vulgar, and surprisingly, the play also involved plenty of comic relief.

Thomas Howard of the Matthew Shepard Foundation hosts a question and answer session at the end of Friday night's performance of "The Laramie Project."

Thomas Howard of the Matthew Shepard Foundation hosts a question and answer session at the end of Friday night's performance of "The Laramie Project."

Thomas Howard, program director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, flew in from New York to see the play and hosted a question-and-answer session between the audience and the performers at the end of the show. He put the theme of the play best: “This is not a gay thing, this is a difference thing.”

He went on to say that the parents who were up in arms didn’t actually know the premise of the play they were so intent on shutting down. “This play, I guarantee you, is not what those parents thought it was. Not at all,” he said. After seeing it performed 114 times, Howard confirmed that Green Valley’s rendition was a great success, despite having to deal with the community backlash.

“It is in my top 10,” he said of the performance.

I can’t help but feel proud of my little brother for being a part of the thought-provoking production. Maybe when Rent comes around — the next reaction-evoking play on the agenda for Green Valley’s theater — those protesting parents can take the time to listen to the words and see past the controversial image. Or maybe they can pop into one of the many teen movies set in high school, and be reminded that their kids aren’t that innocent anyway.

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