Tragedy and Truth

John Hult

John Hult

Stage directors say that there’s no emphasis in a semicircle.

That the more than 20 actors in The Laramie Project, which opens Wednesday in the studio theatre of the Performing Arts Center, emerge to speak from a bare-bones semicircular stage construct carries a heavy symbolism. When they step out of the doldrums of visual non-emphasis to speak the words of the real people of Laramie, Wy., they are surrounded by the watchful citizens of the storied town near the edges of the stage.

Dr. James Johnson, the director of the tragic docudrama, says that the circular stage represents more than just Laramie.

“In a sense, this roundness is the world, it is the community–that we live in a circle,” Johnson said.

The actors, most of whom play at least four different characters, tell the story of Matthew Shepard, the martyred victim of the city’s now infamous hate crime.

Shepard, who was homosexual, left a bar with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on the evening of Oct 6, 1998. The two men drove the first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie far into the country, tied him to a fencepost, pistol-whipped him and left him for dead.

The play, whose content was culled from over 400 hours of interviews with some 200 residents of Laramie, Wy. by New York City’s Tectonic Theater Project, is an attempt bring understanding where there is intolerance and violence, Johnson said.

“The issue I want to talk about, and I think is the major one in the play, is how we have accepted violence in our community,” Johnson said. “I don’t mean this community of Brookings, but I mean this community of the United States, when’s there’s violence towards somebody that’s different.”

Johnson sees that violence manifested in intolerance towards racial or ethnic diversity, religious diversity and diversity in sexual orientation. He refers to the text of the play for an explanation.

“It’s like the minister in the play, Father Smith says, ‘When you call somebody a name, you’ve created violence.’ You don’t have to punch them in the face or shoot them,” he said.

Johnson also noted that telling the tragic true story using the real words of Laramie townsfolk leaves a heavy burden on whoever performs the play. The members of the cast also feel the burden. Perry Anderson Jr. and Derek Hisek both play several characters in The Laramie Project. They both agreed, however, that the opportunity to perform in a play with far-reaching social implications is as exciting as it is challenging.

“I really like the fact that in a community like Brookings–in the Midwest–that we can do something like this,” Anderson said. “It’s very rare that we get to do something this relevant.”

“It’s not a show that somebody just sat down one day and decided to write,” Hisek said. “Everybody in Laramie, the Tectonic Theater Project, all of their hearts are in it as much as ours are.”

Anderson also wanted to make it clear that the point of The Laramie Project is not to lay a guilt trip on the audience.

“People think that we’re trying to preach or tell them something,” he said. “We’re not trying to preach, we’re just showing them information, and they can think what they want.”

There will be a discussion following the performance with professors Dennis Bielfeldt, Charles Woodard, Laurie Haleta, C.E. Denton and the Reverend Teri Johnson of the United Methodist Church.

The show will also feature slides from photographs taken by CST teaching assistant Mark Lindell, who made two trips to Laramie last year.

Tickets to The Laramie Project are $15 for adults, $8 for High School students and free for SDSU students with ID.