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Laramie: Torn apart by a homophobic murder

Thu 1 Jun 2006 In: Performance

A small Wyoming town with a nasty past comes to the stage in Hamilton this weekend. Laramie, population 26,600, is not unlike many New Zealand university towns – there's a strong country and western flavour, with conservative rural folk blending with more liberal students and academics. But what sets Laramie apart is a brutal hate crime in 1998 that saw gay 21-year-old Matthew Shepherd beaten to death while tied to a remote farm fence. The town was ripped asunder by the ensuing court drama and international media frenzy. The Laramie Project is a documentary play, directed in Hamilton by Gaye Pool, Theatre Lecturer of the University of Waikato, and acted by theatre students and staff. As the title suggests, the town itself is the play's protagonist, says actor Keoni Mahelona. "The play tells the journey of the town through it's pursuit towards forgiveness." Whether or not the town succeeds in this pursuit, and recovers from the homophobic crime that shocked, not just LGBT communities, but also the wider American public and the world, is left for the audience to decide. As with all towns, various attitudes and belief systems are present, and the play reveals these with raw and sometimes shocking honesty. "The opinions of all the characters are, in a sense, just thrown at the audience members, one after the other, so the audience only ever has a first reaction to each of them," says actor June Dams. The play explores the town's journey through "the use of 'moments,'" says Mahelona. "'Moments' are segments in time, or snapshots taken from the town throughout the course of the trials. Moments themselves can convey messages." And not all of the town's characters are sympathetic, fellow actor Shelley Watson reminds us. “We learn through the play how this hate crime affected not just Matthew and his family but the whole community." And some had hate-fuelled reactions, including the Reverend Fred Phelps of God Hates Fags infamy, but his position too, is internally coherent, and the play allows the audience to begin to understand where he's coming from. "There are many beliefs out there and it's important to understand the motives behind those beliefs before making any judgements," explains Mahelona. "When you learn about Fred Phelps you wonder how someone can hate so much. But when you understand how he interprets the bible, you could conclude that God is a God of hate." As tough as some views may be to understand, it's important to allow space for their expression, says actor Varvara Richards. “Each speaker in each moment has his or her own message for whoever can hear it.” As for truth, that can be elusive, muses Dams. “To me the play tells us that everyone reveals a little bit of the truth; no one can tell the entire truth because it is different for all of us.” So the onus is on the audience to interpret the work and each will do so based on their own worldview and life experiences. The play's "form reflects its content," says Richards, and the audience will be exposed to a "multiplicity of voices, with shades of meaning… the rawness is commensurate with the stark landscape setting – the raw emotions expressed on the tapes and in the news, the court proceedings, and the journal entries from which the play is made." The audience will have the opportunity to delve further into the issues raised, with question and answer time after Friday night's performance. Written by Moises Kaufman in 2000, The Laramie Project has become the second most performed play in the United States. It has also been staged in the United Kingdom and in Australia, and is just as relevant for a New Zealand audience, say the actors. A hate-fuelled murder such as occurred in Laramie "could just as easily happen here in New Zealand," says Watson. "Most people think New Zealanders are open-minded, but, speaking from the perspective of someone in a lesbian relationship, I know for a fact that many people do not agree with my lifestyle and are prejudiced toward me for it." Mahelona, originally from Hawaii, agrees, saying: "People are a little more closed here," whereas gays and lesbians will express their affection in public in Hawaii, or in Boston, where she studied. Yes, there is relative freedom for gays and lesbians in New Zealand, but perhaps this belies a deeper hostility. The play encourages the audience to reflect on issues many find difficult to deal with. “Hopefully, through doing this play we will confront… the issues that most people like to sweep under the carpet,” says Watson. And perhaps this is one small step toward encouraging dialogue within and between the LGBT communities and mainstream society. The story of Matthew Shepherd, the bright, outgoing young man, cut down by hate, reverberates still to this day, and The Laramie Project shows how one American cowboy town is not unlike small-town New Zealand. The Laramie Project Thursday, Friday, Saturday 1 - 3 June, 8pm The Playhouse Theatre, Academy of Performing Arts, University of Waikato Tickets $10 Bookings Phone 07 838 4922 David Parrish - 1st June 2006    

Credit: David Parrish

First published: Thursday, 1st June 2006 - 12:00pm

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