NEWARK — They have never acted in play like this before, but it has an important message — one Newark High School Drama Club students think their community needs to hear.
“The Laramie Project” tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a young man who on Oct. 6, 1998, was beaten, tied to a fence in the outskirts of Laramie, Wy., and left behind to die six days later, in part because he was gay. Newark High School Director Steve Duprey said the play is the most serious piece the school has ever produced, and he worked closely with Superintendent Matt Cook and High School Principal Tom Root before making a final decision.
“I picked it because it was important,” Duprey said. “The message is very important to get out there. The message is tolerance, the message is anti-hate.”
The play is a compilation of 200 interviews with people of Laramie after Shepard’s death that were collected by members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Duprey said the play doesn’t “pussyfoot around” the homosexual issue that was central to Shepard’s death. The language is strong and the message is stronger.
“This isn’t your typical happy-go-lucky play,” Duprey said. “We cry at every rehearsal. You’re not speaking the words of a playwright. You’re speaking the words of real people. That’s what makes it so powerful.”
The 11 student cast members aren’t shying away from the challenge presented them as they take on 65 different character roles. The play is a departure from their normal acting roles, lacking any comic relief. Students admit it’s a difficult undertaking.
“But the message needs to be heard,” said Kathryn Brinkman, a senior playing seven characters in the play. “It’s not just about homosexuality.”
The students alluded to what they said is a frightening lack of tolerance by the community’s adults to those who are different.
“This is what we’ve observed in our lives,” said Ryan Tracy, a senior playing nine characters.
“It scares me the fact that someone could hate someone so much for something they can’t control,” Brinkman said of the Shepard’s horrific death. “It makes me worry that in this community there’s someone out there ... who could hurt someone for something they can’t control, could hurt someone I love.”
Brinkman and Tracy were joined by junior McKenna Martin playing six roles, and senior Spencer Edmonds playing eight roles. The students sat comfortably in the auditorium chairs or leaning against the chairs’ backs reciting their favorite parts of the play and the scenes that touch them the most. Each character has a distinguishing marker, perhaps an apron or a hat, to identify them, but otherwise the students will be dressed all in black.
So far, the play has been a learning experience and a path to self discovery as they take on personas of people they connect with and others they hope never to emulate. Their emotions are kept in check during rehearsals by forcing themselves to become detached as needed to perform their roles.
“It feels like the people in the scenes are speaking to you when you’re in the audience,” Martin said. “You feel like you are there.”
After each performance, Duprey said they will hold a “talk back” where the audience is allowed to ask questions and talk about the play with the cast and himself.
“I feel so connected (to the characters),” Edmonds added. “It’s raw.”
Edmonds’ favorite scene is called “Two Queers and a Catholic Priest.” It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but Edmonds said he found that he admired the priest for his eloquent message of tolerance and kindness towards gays despite his contradictory beliefs.
Tracy said one of his favorite scenes is the final one, when he plays Dennis Shephard, Matthew’s father, who gives an impassioned statement in court.
“It’s like all the emotion and everything from the entire play all wrapped up, and it all comes out right there,” he said. “It really hits home with the audience.”
Students will be performing the play Oct. 11 through 13, coinciding with the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death. Due to the intensity of subject matter and language, “The Laramie Project” may not be suitable for younger audiences, Duprey warned. A portion of the proceeds from the Newark production will go to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Duprey said knowing the talent of the students he has, he was confident they could tackle a play like “The Laramie Project.” It’s a play that has been performed in high schools across the U.S., he said.
“It’s important that this play is done by high school students because it’s important they hear this,” Duprey said. “It’s about them. They realize the importance behind the message. They are the messengers.”