By Liz Lizama
While nearly two decades has passed since the tragic death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, the McLean High School Theatre Company brings the story of one of America’s most well-known anti-gay hate crimes to the stage with its production of Moisés Kaufman’s controversial “The Laramie Project” next week.
“We are excited to draw attention to such a prevalent issue in society. Though Matthew Shepard died almost 17 years ago, by producing this show we are demonstrating our continual support for him and for victims of prejudice everywhere,” said Amy Poe, artistic director of the McLean High School Theatre Company. “[The] McLean Theatre Company will explore a different side of theater through this drama. We hope that audience members leave inspired to help circulate love throughout the community.”
The docudrama explores the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, beaten to death for his open sexuality. The two assailants, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, also age 21, abducted Shepard and drove him to the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. where they tied him to a fence and left him to die in the cold night. A bicyclist found him nearly 18 hours after the assault. Shepard was rushed to the hospital but died five days later after succumbing to his injuries.
“For our cast, this is much more than a simple high school play,” Poe said. The week that the play opens, students have organized a number of LGBTQ awareness events, which includes an exclusive screening of the limited-release new documentary “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” on April 8. Before the April 11 play, students will also host a festival featuring booths from many LGBTQ organizations in the area.
Just five weeks after Shepard’s death, the Tectonic Theater Project travelled to Laramie to gather the mood and reaction of the small town. The team spent over a year conducting 200 interviews with locals. “The Laramie Project” portrays those residents by quoting their own words.
“I also love docudrama theater because it presents a real acting challenge because actors must learn to speak the actual, candid words of ordinary people instead of the crafted words of talented playwright,” Poe said.
The McLean Theatre Company production features Jack Posey as Moisés Kaufman alongside over 50 performers that convey the sentiments of those in Laramie following the murder.
Poe said she really wanted to produce this play for members of the theater company that identify as LGBTQ as a means to foster dialogue across the whole student body and encourage acceptance for all students.
Senior Camille Calderon said the school administration was very supportive of the production but that some parents raised concerns about the graphic nature of the show. “It’s like our director told us – even though this is hard theater, this is theater. Theater is meant to express opinions and ideas, not just happy thoughts. Even though people aren’t comfortable with this kind of stuff, that’s okay because that is what theater is meant to do – it’s meant to get your point across.”
Poe believes it still makes for a great time at the theater. “While this play is about a very morose topic, it actually focuses on themes of hope, acceptance and love,” she said.
“There are mutterings around town that the Westboro Baptist Church might show up to protest,” Poe said of possible challenges.
Amid the potential discord in the community, the administration agreed that the play is based on a real life story that still has much relevance today.
“The Laramie Project” runs April 9 – 12. Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday with a special 2 p.m. matinee on April 12. The play will be performed at McLean High School, 1633 Davidson Road, McLean. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. For more information, visit mcleandrama.com or call 703-714-5700.