Illuminated by a red spotlight, Kalina Ko ’17, a DramaLab producer, plead for forgiveness as she played Russell Henderson, one of the two defendants in the murder of an openly gay college student Matthew Shepard, during Henderson’s trial. While the rest of the cast remained sitting on the multiple black boxes spread throughout the Theater Classroom, Ko stood behind the sole white box, reserved for the narrator, in the center of the room. Henderson is ultimately found guilty for murder, robbery, and kidnapping.
This scene marks the climax of “The Laramie Project,” a story by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Company about the events surrounding the death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard. Taking place in Laramie, Wyoming, Shepard’s murder was perpetrated by two fellow Laramie residents, shocking the small, peaceful, suburban town, and raising questions about the nature of hate crimes.
“I enjoyed that everyone played multiple characters. It was interesting to attempt to follow it, even though I guess following it is not necessary, just things that were said were every powerful and kind of gives you an insight into the minds of people in that town, how people really perceived that and what that meant to everyone in the actual town,” said Adaeze Izuegbunam ’20.
To emphasize that “The Laramie Project” is the retelling of the residents’ stories, the cast was instructed to wear minimal costumes, with only one or two specific items to represent a certain character.
“We’re very obviously actors. You’re not supposed to become the characters like you would in another form of media, you’re supposed to be an actor… I’m telling this story, I’m not a part of it. So for this we were just trying to represent blank slates,” said Zari Cordova-Potter ’20, who told the story of seven characters including Detective Sergeant Hing and Greg Pierotti, a company member of the Tectonic Theater Project.
As the story progresses, several Laramie residents, affected by Shepard’s murder, have their own epiphanies. One extremely emotional scene is the monologue of Romaine Patterson, a lesbian college student and close friend of Shepard who was played by Sydney Olney ’18. As “Amazing Grace” plays softly in the background, Olney, after seeing Reverend Fred Phelps, a minister from Kansas, protesting at Matthew’s funeral against gay rights, decides to stand up to him when she sees him again at Henderson’s trial.
“[Patterson] had basically had enough when Matthew’s funeral was done, so then when she found out he was also coming to the trial, she organized this group of fellow students to dress up as angels and just completely close around him and block him off from being heard or from seeing any of what was going on. She’s just so sassy about it, and I love her character. I can really relate with her because she’s this young dynamic college student who’s involved in activism, and that’s kind of what I want to be when I’m in college,” said Olney.
Olney also played Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. Besides capturing the reactions of Laramie residents, The Laramie Project also provides insight into the impact of Shepard’s murder on his family, who make the ultimate decision about whether Aaron McKinney, one of Shepard’s murderers, should receive the death penalty. The morning after McKinney’s defense team begged the Shepards for their client’s life, Dennis Shepard delivered a powerful monologue sparing McKinney’s life.
Janet Conklin ’17, a DramaLab Producer who acted as the narrator, said “[The monologue] is the real speech that [was] said at the trial of the perpetrators by the victim’s father and I cried every time we did it, even onstage. It was about how even though Matthew was tied up to the fence technically alone, he was really not alone. He was there with the sky and the earth and nature and God, and it was just a really beautiful scene…To kind of be reminded that no one’s ever really alone in this fight, that no one’s ever completely by themselves, [was] reassuring.”