REVIEW: Memory and Hope are the Emotional Crux of ‘The Laramie Project’ at Oakland University

Do not miss your chance to see the power presentation of The Laramie Project running now until Sunday, April 7, 2024, in Varner Studio Theatre on the campus of Oakland University (OU) in Rochester, Mich.

Staged by the Oakland University School of Music, Theatre and Dance and directed by OU faculty member Kelli Crump, The Laramie Project is written by Moisés Kaufman, along with members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, and chronicles the aftermath of the 1998 hate crime murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

Tectonic Company member (Caylee Morgan) records a story in ‘The Laramie Project’ at Oakland University. Photo credit: Crystal Orser

An excellent example of verbatim theatre, the play’s dialogue is solely gleaned from hundreds of interviews of Laramie residents, company member’s personal journal entries, and published news reports. Seventeen actors portray multiple roles and serve as guides across an ugly historical landscape. If you’re having trouble placing the story, here’s a recap: Eighteen-Six-Twenty-Six. These are the numbers that succinctly tell Matthew Shepard’s story.

For 18 hours, he was tied to a fence post in freezing temperatures, bloodied, beaten, and bruised. For six days he clung to life before succumbing to his injuries. It has been 26 years since his horrific death. I am a contemporary of Matthew Shepard, but I had forgotten that. As a milestone birthday looms ahead for me, Matthew is still 21 years old. I think about the highs and lows I’ve experienced in the past 26 years and it’s sobering to remember Matthew wasn’t afforded the same opportunity simply because he was gay. He was also just 5’2” and weighed a little over 100 pounds.  

When this tragedy happened, Laramie joined Waco and Oklahoma City in a club no one wanted to be in. A club where your history is forever linked to an unspeakable act that leaves humanity exposed with their raw emotions on display. Some of the residents insisted Laramie wasn’t that type of town. Adamant that they were honest, hardworking, religious folks. And that there were other gays in Laramie. All true, and yet, it did happen. Being ‘good people’ doesn’t shield you from bad things. Nor does it negate the outcome of whatever crime has been committed. In this situation, two locals, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested and convicted for the attack. Henderson was a member of the local Mormon temple. That’s the rub. It can happen here or anywhere. And the fact that it still is happening over 25 years later, further emphasizes why works like The Laramie Project are so important. Attacks like Matthew’s have not only become more frequent; they have also become viler. The sentiments expressed in the play could have easily been uttered last week. And then there’s social media, which amplifies and spreads these attitudes in a way that wasn’t available in 1998. 

Dr. Cantway (Ximena Perez) recalls the patients that came into her emergency room that night in ‘The Laramie Project’ at OU. Photo credit Crystal Orser

The first act unfolds the story and helps the audience get their bearings. The second act is the aftermath. Laramie goes under the microscope and faces the reality of what happened and the fallout that comes with it. This is Matthew’s story, but it’s also a story that highlights how a tragedy like this affects those who are close to the epicenter. Matthew may have been the one who died, but he certainly wasn’t the only person affected. Another interesting aspect of this play was at the time there were no federal and state laws designed to deal with violence against a person solely based on their sexuality or gender identity. It wouldn’t be until 2009 before the U.S. Congress passed the ‘Shepard/Byrd Act.’

‘In memory and in hope’ is the first line spoken in the play. It is not fun revisiting past transgressions, but they can’t be ignored either. Telling the story of Matthew and countless others helps to keep their memory alive and reminds us there is still so much work to be done. By doing so, we can hopefully enact change that will impact future generations. Make time to see The Laramie Project and become part of the conversation.

This talented cast features: Zachary Andrew, Zander Brown, Charles Carcamo, Pietro Cataldo, Ellise Dowd, DeNetria Gibson, Tyler Girand, Alexis Hunter, Brady Jacot, Zena Kissinger, Haley Lucas, Caylee Morgan, Crystal Orser, Ximena Perez, Syd Rauch, Adam Rivera, and Matthew Sell.

Making the magic happen behind the scenes are Ash Ritter (scenic design), Laine Hamburg (costumes, hair/makeup design), Kerro Knox 3 (lighting design–faculty), Aurora Ave-Lallemant (sound design), Bailey Graham (properties), and Joe Beck (technical director–staff). Emily Reschke is the stage manager, Aurora Ave-Lallemant and Tanea Harris are the assistant stage managers, and Aidan Phillips, is the Assistant Director/Dramaturg.

The Laramie Project runs two hours 30 minutes with a 10-minute intermission. Tickets are $20 general admission/$15 students and are available at Etix.com.

WARNING: The Laramie Project contains hate speech, descriptions of violence, and homomisia/homophobia. All audience members aged 14 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

Revisit the past for the sake of the future at one of these remaining performances:

  • Saturday, March 30 at 8 p.m.
  • Wednesday, April 3 at 8 p.m.
  • Thursday, April 4 at 8 p.m.*
  • Friday, April 5 at 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, April 6 at 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, April 7 at 2 p.m.

*Glitter and Be Gay! A party to celebrate LGBTQ+ Joy immediately following this performance. There is a $5 entrance fee.

About Sarah Hovis

Freelance wordsmith, arts appreciator, grammar geek, sports spectator, stationery snob, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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