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Through our darkest times, ‘The Laramie Project’ offers healing and hope

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Part elegy, part portrait of small-town America, “The Laramie Project,” playing at Nitery Theater tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., stitches together interviews with police officers, students, pastors and bartenders to create a detailed sketch of the rampant homophobia in our communities and the ways we bounce back from trauma.

The play is set in the aftermath of crime and national interest. In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was kidnapped and killed by two local teenagers. Tied to a pole, beaten with the butt of a gun and left in the cold for 18 hours, Shepard’s death because a flashpoint for a national conversation on hate crimes. But once the cameras, TV trucks and intrigue left Laramie, a New York based theater company descended on the town, conducting interviews with locals on the community culture, the nature of the crime and the path forward. The thoughtful, honest and uncensored monologues provide space for decompression and reflection, allowing residents to redefine Laramie, a place more complicated than any one event or crime. Director Zachary Dammann ’18 effectively moves the actors around the stage in simple yet dynamic configurations, helping focus our attention on the standout performances of Matt Herrero ’17 and Matthew Libby ’17. With wringing hands and quivering lips, they animate their characters with authenticity and hyper-specificity.

“The Word is either sufficient or it is not,” repeats one of the pastors, over and over again in the play. Though directed at his congregation, it is also the central question of “The Laramie Project.” Does The Word do justice to the complexities of communal history? Does it have the power to change values? Does it move beyond martyrdom, showing Matthew as more than a victim and Laramie as more than a symbol for hate, bigotry and violence? The play must also answer questions about the ethics of its construction. Although it distances itself from the vulture-esque media that exploited Laramie for headlines and failed to respect the privacy of the Shepard family, the differences are not as straightforward. The script absolves itself from sin, claiming it fulfilled the town’s wishes by focusing on the truth. But we must confront what it means to parachute into communities and extract their stories, even if “The Laramie Project” should be celebrated for the way it brings urgent and essential stories to diverse groups of people.

The show thrusts itself into a vacuum of silence. It identifies a lack of dialogue and takes initiative to start a conservation. We are all implicated in this story, in its guilt and mourning. In a standout scene, the hateful rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church is met with the soft melodies of “Amazing Grace.” The bigoted orator is surrounded in angel wings. Hatred is met with song, as community members lock arms in collective resistance. The intervention speaks to the values and function of “The Laramie Project” — a work of radical love. The play discourages us from seeing Laramie as a place of otherness or unrecognizable bigotry, instead prompting us to see its reflection in our communities. The history it documents is participatory, not didactic; communal, not authoritative.

First forcing us to bear witnesses to trauma and mourning, “The Laramie Project” eventually creates a space for us to participate in healing. It demands our continued engagement, even after we’ve left the theater. The project is incomplete, awaiting our response. The “Word,” then, is not sufficient. It is our responsibility to reimagine our values, rebuild our communities and recommit to compassion as a guiding moral principle.

 

Contact Alessandro R.L. Hall at ahall2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.