Winnetonka High Schoolers envision life in Laramie.

Class Project 

Winnetonka High Schoolers envision life in Laramie.

When Winnetonka High School drama teacher Sheri Coffman sent her seniors home with the script for The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman's docudrama about the death of gay college student Matthew Shepard, she hoped they would reaffirm her gutsy intention to produce the play. "If at all possible, I wanted to do the play with this group of students," Coffman says.

The Theater 4 class returned on Monday and, rather than a flat-out "yes" or "no," one of the students spoke for her peers and gave a theatrical answer: She performed the scene in which Matthew's father defends his family's wish to spare his son's killers the death penalty. After Coffman consulted with Winnetonka's principal, Dr. Harold Corda, the play was a go. Beginning March 26, it will run for a week at the Just Off Broadway space prior to its Winnetonka performances. (Blue Valley North High School is also mounting The Laramie Project May 10 and 11, and the Barstow School staged it last week.)

Most -- but not all -- of the students' parents support the project. Melissa Bartlett says her mother is coming to see the show; her father is not. "My dad's not too big on the whole gay scheme," she says. Caprice Robb says her mother isn't sure she's attending the show. "One of my roles is Romaine Patterson, who is a lesbian. I had to tell my mom there weren't any physical attributes to her being a lesbian in the show," Robb says.

"I'm very involved in my church, and my mother is supportive," says one student who asks not to be identified. "But one of the pastors, when I told him what the show was about, said, 'Who picked that homo show?' It really hurt that someone would have such a closed vision."

After Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead, Kaufman and the New York-based Tectonic Theatre Company crafted the show from hundreds of hours of interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming. Though Shepard is not a character in the show, several members of Laramie's gay and lesbian community are, as are Shepard's parents; his killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson; and notorious Topeka, Kansas-based homophobe Fred Phelps (who has noted the high school's upcoming production on his Web site).

Miles Paul, who is cast as Henderson, says that "inside, I was opposed to [the role], but there's a powerful sense of catharsis. And a role is a role is a role." Classmate Trevor Ludwig, who plays McKinney, says, "I can use this part and make [people] realize he's the mirror image of the badness inside of people."

Mary Jo Burton, the district's communications director, says there was "anticipatory anxiety" about the reaction to the show, but Corda says he hasn't received any calls from nervous parents. "People say the play is about homosexuality. But I'm not convinced it is," Corda says. "The message we want to communicate is that people shouldn't be treated like that, no matter who or what they are."

"There's a very low murmur" among parents, says Martin Dowman, whose son Corey is in the show. "I think people are not yet comfortable talking about anything like this openly. But the play is about acceptance of other people in lots of different ways."

The students say that once the show was selected and approved, Coffman asked them to pay extra attention to the normal litany of gay slurs they heard over the course of an average day at Winnetonka. "There were a lot of comments. It frightened me," recalls Patricia Von Holt. Sean Clossick wasn't surprised at all. He says that, though he's not gay, he has endured periods of constant "queer" and "fag" epithets thrown his way. "The play is about what we can do to stop that," he says. And the students seem to agree with Corey Dowman, who says his goal "is to make the openness contagious."

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