NEWS

‘Laramie Project’ digs beneath surface of town scarred by hate crime

Brian Mackey

America is full of place names that have come to signify events and ideas in our history, both heroic and shameful.

Early in “The Laramie Project,” a play that opens Friday at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, the character Jedadiah Schultz lays it out: “If you would have asked me before, I would have told you Laramie is a beautiful town, secluded enough that you can have your own identity. ...

“Now, after Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime. We’ve become Waco, we’ve become Jasper. We’re a noun, a definition, a sign. We may be able to get rid of that ... but it will sure take a while.”

“Matthew” is Matthew Shepard, the college student who in 1998 was kidnapped, beaten and left to die tied to a fence in freezing temperatures outside Laramie, Wyo. He was attacked because he was gay, and died five days later.

The crime sparked national outrage, and “Laramie” soon joined the roll of place names used as a shorthand reference to infamous events in American history.

“The Laramie Project” is part play and part oral history; it seeks to understand the crime and the town.

Moises Kaufman, credited as the playwright along with the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, visited Laramie six times in the year and a half after Shepard’s murder. He and his colleagues recorded interviews with townspeople, transcribed the tapes and, through a series of workshops, slowly molded the material into a play.

“The idea of listening to the citizens talk really interested me,” Kaufman writes in the introduction to the trade paperback edition of the play. “How is Laramie different from the rest of the country, and how is it similar?”

“It’s interesting and difficult,” director Phil Funkenbusch said last week in an interview. “The dialogue is real peoples’ real voices, so every weird way somebody talks is in the script.”

That includes everything from “umms” and “uhs” to the habit of some people to ... sort of ... trail off mid-sentence.

“It’s harder for an actor to learn it because it’s not like a playwright wrote a beautiful sentence,” Funkenbusch said. “There’s just like — we all talk funny.”

Actor Kevin Burke said that the play’s basis in reality has made it easier to learn his roles.

Burke plays five characters, ranging from Dr. Cantway, an emergency room doctor who treated both Shepard and one of his assailants, to Sgt. DeBree, the detective who led the investigation into Shepard’s murder. Burke said he tries to get inside the minds of the characters.

“The sergeant detective that I play later on in the play, he was a person who would probably say, ‘I don’t believe in the gay lifestyle, and I don’t really want to have anything to do with gays,’” Burke said. “But going through this experience, he even has a line to the effect of, ‘Once I got into the case and understood what they had to go through,’ it changed him.”

Burke also said that with several bigoted characters, it would be easy to get carried away with a portrayal.

“I think the key to this play is not exaggerating the character. The words to the play are the real words of the people, and Phil (Funkenbusch) has given us good advice: let the words do the work,” Burke said.

The script is flexible, with more than 60 characters who can be played by any number of actors — six people with 10 roles each, or 40 people each playing just one or two parts.

Funkenbusch said he really wanted to “see a town” for this production of “The Laramie Project,” so he cast 21 of the roughly 40 people who auditioned.

“I jokingly said to the cast a week or so ago that I’d like to do ‘Our Town’ with the same exact cast and frame them,” Funkenbusch said, referring to Thornton Wilder’s play.

“It’s not a play about a gay person, or it’s not a ‘gay play,’” Funkenbusch said. “It’s a play about a town.”

That said, theater never takes place in a vacuum.

“It seems pretty timely at the moment, considering we recently had some incident two or three weeks ago at UIS and the Matthew Shepard Act was signed (last week) by the president,” Funkenbusch said.

Three men face hate crimes charges for allegedly damaging the car of a University of Illinois Springfield student and beating another man on campus early last month. The men who were arrested allegedly called the victims derogatory names aimed at homosexuals.

And last week, President Barack Obama signed an anti-hate crimes measure that had been attached to a defense spending bill. The legislation is named for Shepard and James Byrd Jr., a black man who died after he was chained to a truck and dragged for three miles in Jasper, Texas.

Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or brian.mackey@sj-r.com.

The Laramie Project

Presented by Springfield Theatre Centre

When

8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Nov. 13-14; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 15

Where

Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St.

Tickets

$13 adults, $12 senior citizens and children, available at the Hoogland Center box office, by phone at (217) 523-2787 or online at www.scfta.org.