By Deb Krajec
THE LARAMIE PROJECT is a play that I wanted to direct at Marquette for a very long time. This I exactly the kind of play that suits our Theatre Arts mission to produce plays each season that deal with issues of Social Justice.
First of all, it was a wonderful performance piece for our student actors; each performer had to play multiple people, many times with almost no time in between – they had to put on a jacket, or sometimes just sit down and be someone completely new. The script had wonderful challenges for actors: it’s an actors’ piece. The characters and story are important, not the spectacle.
This play is what I call a “docu-drama”, a documentary form of theatre. It’s about a real historical event and the story itself is taken all from fact. The words are the actual words of people in Laramie.
The Tectonic Theatre Company went to Laramie in 1998, a couple of weeks after Matthew Shepard was murdered. They were struck by how the story of this brutal murder of a gay college student, severely beaten and left to die tied to a fence, was affecting the world, and felt compelled to find out why this young man was murdered – how could such a vicious hate crime happen in a small town? And they wanted to learn how the Laramie community was dealing with it.
They visited Laramie six times and conducted over 200 interviews. They used that material to craft a play that is the actual people of Laramie telling their story in their own words. Each speaks of how they were affected by such a horrible hate crime in their town. Laramie was changed forever. It was put on the map, in a sense, because people remember the murder. This event changed our country as well; people were affected by Matt’s murder all over the nation.
I think we need to talk about such things in our community here at Marquette: hate crimes, homophobia, and intolerance. The recent suicides of gay young men across our country has again brought to light the fact that there is a lot of hate, bullying, and intolerance that is going on everywhere against gay people, most of which is never brought before the public eye. I remember times in Marquette’s past where messages of hate against gays were chalked on classroom chalk boards and sidewalks across campus, when nasty diatribes against homosexual people were printed in the Marquette Tribune “Letters to the Editor” section, when a gay student would NEVER be brave enough to be out of the closet, because of the backlash against them on this campus.
As a professor, I have had a number of gay students come to me in confidence, in an emotional state of crisis, because they were gay, and they were afraid to be at Marquette, and they needed someone to talk to. I am very grateful it is not like that anymore! In my 27 years as a professor here Marquette, I have seen this university come far in promoting acceptance of LGBT students and faculty. And that’s wonderful. But there is still a LONG way to go, not just at Marquette, but everywhere. Many people don’t realize the power to harm they have with words, with actions. So many people are ignorant of how they may be hurting others by simple things they may say in public, like the phrase “That’s so gay!” that seems to be popular among young people now. I had a homosexual student in the LARAMIE PROJECT cast who says that statement breaks his heart each time he hears it, because it uses the word as a negative identifier, a slam, when to him, the word is who he is. I don’t think people have any idea of the power of such things to hurt.
I think it was important to do this play, and to let the Marquette community have had a chance to see it, and to think and talk about it. There is no better way of making an important subject matter real to people than to let them see the situation through other people’s eyes by watching a play performance, people right there before them, live, onstage, telling their story. Theatre has a great power to make you feel and think, to inspire dialogue and critical thinking and writing.
It is my hope that the people who came to see THE LARAMIE PROJECT will find themselves thinking about the subject of homophobia in a different way. We had a talk back after every performance, with respondents from a variety of backgrounds, gay and straight, to comment on the play and the importance of Marquette’s willingness to dialogue about the subject, to see what we can do to make our campus community a better, safer, more welcoming place for all. As a Jesuit University, we have a duty to find ways to truly care for all of God’s children, to be “Men and Women for Others” in deed as well as word.
Debra Krajec is an Artistic Associate Professor in the Theatre Arts Program at the Diederich College of Communication. She was the Artistic Director for the campus production of “The Laramie Project.”