Haldane Drama tackles a tough subject: the brutal death, 20 years ago, of a gay student in Wyoming
For many Americans, the death in 1998 of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was a watershed in the gay-rights movement. The 21-year-old was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die near Laramie, causing an outcry and a national examination.
Yet, two decades later, a group of Haldane High School students — all born in this century — admitted they initially had only a vague idea of what transpired.
“I had not heard of him,” said Liam Mooney, one of eight actors who gathered at The Current to discuss an upcoming Haldane Drama production of The Laramie Project.
Quinn Petkus added: “I had seen his picture, but that’s about it.”
The drama, which will be performed next weekend (Friday, Dec. 6, and Saturday, Dec. 7), is based on interviews that Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project conducted with a wide swathe of townspeople in the 18 months following the crime. The interviews were edited together to form the play.
Its selection for the school’s fall production led to passionate discussion on Facebook, with some adults questioning whether it is appropriate for student audiences and other residents, including many Haldane students, defending its subject matter.
In a note to the Haldane students, Kaufman wrote: “At a time like this, when our nation is in such turmoil, we need the play to show both where we are divided and how we can come together. I am always moved when I hear a high school is producing the play. You guys are the generation that we must nurture and bless, so you can create the world you dream about.
“The fact that you’re doing this play shows a commitment to tackle difficult issues, and a willingness to look for hope. I stand with you in that search.”
The Current spoke with the eight cast members about their reactions to the play. Their responses have been edited for brevity.
What has been the greatest revelation for you from the play?
Celia Drury: It’s easy when you don’t agree with someone to think about them as the enemy. I’m a liberal, but seeing the emotion behind what everyone, of different beliefs, said [about Shepard’s death] affected me deeply. Understanding how society taught them to do this makes you think about your own actions.
Maddie Barkman: It’s hard to hear that things like this happened, and that hate crimes are still happening. I grew up in a loving and open home, so it’s jarring. It doesn’t make me feel the safest about the world I’m about to enter.
Curtis Huber: All of us, or most of us, have grown up in a small-knit community, but there’s so much going on in the world that we don’t know about.
How do you feel engaging in a dialogue with someone whose opinions diverge from yours?
Huber: My parents are very liberal, but some of my extended family is conservative and it’s hard for me to take those opinions in. But it’s important for me to know why they feel that way. There’s a line between respecting and disagreeing.
Sasha Levy: It depends on if they’re respectful of your opinion. I used to not be respectful — I’d yell if someone was homophobic. I can respect but disagree.
Noah Bingham: One of the detriments of living in a small community is we’re not getting challenged about our beliefs.
Drury: I had a lot of prejudice about people living in small towns; I’d never been exposed to them. Moving here was hard but when I sat down and became friends with people who didn’t agree with me, I felt more sure of myself.
Barkman: I was doing a project in my government class a few weeks ago. We had to come up with a survey — I did mine on a controversial topic. The majority of responses I got were aligned with my beliefs, but [on] the few that weren’t I was able to have a mature conversation about why we saw things differently. It is important to not always think you’re correct.
Can any place on earth assert, as some people in Laramie did, that it is “not the kind of town where this happens”?
Bingham: Laramie could be any small town. It’s familiar but also seems so out-of-touch to think it could never happen [there]. But it did and it will happen again if we don’t address the issues behind it, the irrational hate that people have, and bring that to light.
Petkus: Everyone assumes Cold Spring is a little bubble where nothing [bad] can happen. This shows that nothing is really sacred.
Levy: This play has to be produced 20 years later because we have to be reminded that it happens and that it will happen again.
Maya Gelber: If we don’t own the hate that America has, there’s no way that we can move forward.
Petkus: When you hear the premise of the play, you think Laramie is a backward, gun-slinging town. But then you meet all these people and understand that it’s a good community for the most part, and the people there aren’t all faces of what happened to Matthew Shepard.
Gelber: The priest tells them to tell the story right, make sure everything is truthful. He talks about how a crime like this is committed every time someone uses a slur. The [company members] were surprised by that.
Levy: They were expecting a homophobic town and what they got was genuine love.
Have Haldane students become more accepting of each other’s differences over the time you’ve been a student?
Petkus: Every year it progresses, but it ebbs and flows.
Are you glad The Laramie Project was chosen as the fall play?
All: “Yes, absolutely. Yeah.”
The Laramie Project will be performed at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 6, and Saturday, Dec. 7. Tickets are $12 each (or $5 for a student) and are available at the door, or in advance at haldanedrama.ticketspice.com. Senior citizens get free admission. The play is best suited for students in middle school and older.