Young actors from Truckee Meadows Community College are doing each of these things with their staging of the docudramas “The Laramie Project” and “The Laramie Project 10 Years Later,” which began last weekend and concludes this weekend.
Both plays are based on the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Laramie, Wyo., which put a nationwide spotlight on hate crimes and led to many movements, organizations and legislation. It’s about more than just the murder, it is about a community’s reaction to a tragedy.
A month after the murder, members of Tectonic Theater Project in New York traveled to Laramie and conducted interviews with the people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play “The Laramie Project,” which they later made into a film for HBO. The words in both plays are made up entirely of actual words spoken by real people who were interviewed after the event.
“The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” is an epilogue to the first play and addresses the long-term effects of tragedy on a community and whether or not any good has come out of it in the form of growth and acceptance.
“This play does not say ‘If you’re not gay-friendly, for lack of a better term, open-minded, you are an awful, terrible person because we do have people in this community who express their views that are in opposition to the empathy, sympathy of this horrific crime,’ ” said Paul Aberasturi, director of the play and chair of TMCC’s Visual and Performing Arts Department.
“It’s more about people, people of any community and the diversified views that they have and how something like this that happens fits into their lives and how they apply it to themselves,” Aberasturi added.
A frightening thought came from Adam Semas, who plays the role of Russell Henderson, one of the two young men now serving life sentences for Shepard’s murder.
“He could be anybody,” Semas said about studying the real-life Russell. “He’s an average guy who want along with Aaron (McKinney, the primary murderer), wrong place at the wrong time.”
Many of the local actors, who were very young when the Shepard murder occurred, said they learned a lot by performing these plays. Stacy Johnson, a 25-year-old TMCC student who plays the role of Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy, said she was surprised at how little progress had been made in gay rights protections between the time of the murder and the 10-years-later interviews in 2008.
“Judy Shepard was also quoted as saying that there has been 10 years of progress yet no change,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing to me to see that things have changed at the human level, the grassroots level, but legislatively, legally, over 10 years nothing huge has changed. At that point, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was still in effect and it’s amazing to me to see that this horrendous hate crime had happened yet no one had jumped on the bandwagon to really put that into effect.”
“It’s a story from 1998 and it happened in Reno two weeks ago, a hate crime that happened in Lemmon Valley,” said 24-year-old actress and TMCC student Megan Smith, referring to anti-gay slurs that were painted on a local house. “Obviously he wasn’t brutally tied to a fence but the same thing is happening.”
While the progression of attitudes towards gays as a whole might be a matter of debate, at least one young actress in the TMCC production saw how the performance of this play touched someone close to her.
“After the show, (my grandma) came up to me with tears in her eyes and told me that she understood more now about homosexuals and their challenges and what they have to go through,” said 18-year-old Myranda Keeley. “It was really cool because typically she doesn’t really agree with that kind of stuff.”
This weekend’s performances are as follows:
• 7 p.m. today: “The Laramie Project”
• 7 p.m. Friday: “The Laramie Project 10 Years Later”
• 3 p.m. Saturday: “The Laramie Project”
• 7 p.m. Saturday: “The Laramie Project 10 Years Later”
• 3 p.m. Sunday: “The Laramie Project”
• 7 p.m. Sunday: “The Laramie Project 10 Years Later”
Tickets are available online at www.showtix4u.com or at the door of the TMCC Redfield Performance Arts Center. located in the shopping center at Keystone Avenue and W. Fifth Street in Reno. Ticket packages are available for a discount to anyone who wants to see the original as a matinee and the epilogue later that night.