My memory of the one role I ever had in a high school play has largely faded, but I do recall the director, a young English teacher who brought to his task great energy and commitment. Living in my Jesuit community is another energetic and committed young English teacher, Chris Derby, S.J., a Jesuit brother who directs plays at Xavier High School. In January he directed “The Laramie Project.” The play is based on the 1998 hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student who was beaten to death by two local young men on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo.
“It was a different kind of play from what we’d been doing,” Brother Derby said, “focused as it is on the issue of intolerance.” It demonstrates, he added, the dangerous degree to which prejudices—in this case, those surrounding sexual orientation—can explode with devastating force if they remain unexamined.
The choice of “The Laramie Project” was especially appropriate for Xavier, because as a school it has been highlighting themes of diversity through a series of events aimed at promoting greater understanding and relationships among those of differing racial, cultural and other backgrounds. In December, for instance, three panels from the national AIDS quilt were displayed during AIDS Awareness Week. And this spring, a cultural diversity awards dinner will be held for the second time.
Nevertheless, Brother Derby noted that in deciding on “The Laramie Project”—a choice approved by both the principal and the school president—“we knew we were taking a risk” because of the sensitive theme. He accordingly sent a letter to parents explaining the choice. “Only one father called to express a reservation,” he said, “and since he didn’t leave his name or number, we couldn’t call back.” As it turned out, the play was a decided success. Not only were all seats sold out on opening night in the school gymnasium, latecomers without tickets willingly paid for standing room. And Brother Derby said that subsequent feedback had been entirely positive.
But the play was a risk in another sense too. “It wasn’t just the subject matter that caused some hesitation,” he said. It was the style too. The story of Matthew Shepard’s murder is not acted out in the play; it is presented through testimony of various kinds given by local residents and university representatives as they are interviewed by members of a New York City theater group that had come to Laramie to develop a play as a project. Hence the word “project” in the play’s title. The student actors consequently approached their roles in a primarily stationary manner, with a minimum not only of movement but also of props. The main props in the Xavier production were a few tables and chairs with—outlined behind a scrim in the background—fence rails suggestive of those to which Matthew had been tied. Brother Derby spoke of worrying that the audience might not like the play’s minimal-action style. The worry, however, proved unfounded.
There were, moreover, moments of powerful drama. After the murder, for instance, the Rev. Fred Phelps—a fundamentalist preacher who regularly denounces gay people—appeared in Laramie. He is shown in the Xavier production picketing at the Shepard funeral, waving signs saying “God Hates Fags.” As part of their preparatory work, Brother Derby suggested that the student actors visit the real Rev. Phelps’s Web site, godhatesfags.com, and several did. They were horrified, he said, at such a display of prejudice, not least because many of the students know people who have been hurt by hate-driven terms like faggot, kike, nigger or chink.
Over the past few years, numerous schools and colleges around the country have been producing “The Laramie Project.” The lesson it demonstrates has clearly touched a nerve, one that schools like Xavier recognize as providing a valuable teaching experience for actors and audience alike. The lesson might be described as the need to respect diversity throughout all levels of society. For many, however, that respect is still lacking, and they are made to suffer accordingly in a manner that runs counter to Gospel values.