“The Laramie Project” at Palm Coast’s New Repertory Theatre: This Is Who We Are
FlaglerLive | September 22, 2011
Note: The “Laramie Project” is on for just three more shows, tonight at 7:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. See below for details.
Leave it to John Sbordone, who directs his life as if it were a stage in perpetual search of a twist, to choose “The Laramie Project” as the inaugural play of his—and Palm Coast’s—new City Repertory Theatre.
“The City Repertory theater,” Sbordone said over coffee at Best Bagels & Deli on Election day this week, “is about trying to find thought-provoking and emotionally involving plays, drama. That’s what we’re about. We wanted to be able to attract serious actors. We want the best that are in the area. In order to do that, you have to find the best kinds of play. ‘Laramie Project’ fits that to a mold.”
Beginning Thursday night: “The Laramie Project” opens Sept. 15 at the City Repertory Theater’s current home at Hollingsworth Gallery, which too many people still don’t know about. it’s the many-world gallery on the second floor of City Market Place, the inward-looking shopping center on Cypress Point Parkway, which also has a hard time finding its audience. That’s the shopping center behind Walmart (that gets everybody nodding recognition). Here’s a map if you still aren’t sure.
The play will be staged nightly at 7:30 on Sept. 15, 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24.
As two straight hours of soul-searching tend to be, it’s a demanding play for actors and audiences, and nothing like it has been performed in Palm Coast before. “It just struck me that Laramie said everything that we wanted to say about what a theater ought to be doing, that is, it tells a brilliant story,” Sbordone says. “It involves a whole spectrum of characters, the whole city of Laramie, Wyoming, is represented in the play and is told by 10 actors. This is all based on interviews that the Tectonic Theater Company did in the course of a year after the death and murder of Matthew Shephard,” the 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered for being gay in 1998. “So you get police, you get ranchers, you get townspeople, shop-owners. It’s like everyman in every town.” Sbordone compares the play to a more Brecht-like “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play.
“Of course the polarizing issue, the event, the murder of a gay college student is at the forefront of this, and so here you have everybody’s reaction. People in Laramie thought they had a wonderful town, bathed in sunshine, they thought they were very friendly people, everybody liked everybody else—tolerant. Tolerant.” Like Palm Coast thinks of itself, in other words. Sbordone continues: “One of the things we’re looking at, this play will examine the difference between tolerance and acceptance. That’s an important concept. So everybody is commenting, and some of the lines, extraordinarily poignant lines, are: we are like this? Are we like this? And then the answer: we are like this.”
Before it caught the world’s eye Laramie was the sort of place where vehicles’ bumpers carried “Hatred is a family value” stickers–but also the sort of place that did not accept what happened to Shepard as representing it, and did what it could, in innumerable gestures that countered bigotry with enlightenment, to show it.
Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old freshman at the University of Wyoming in Laramie on Oct. 7, 1998. That afternoon he attended a planning meeting for Gay Awareness Week. Later that Wednesday evening he went to the Fireside Lounge, a bar in Laramie. Aaron McKinney, 22, and Russell Henderson, 21, local roofers both pretending to be gay, lured him out of the bar and into their truck. During the drive through Laramie, Shepard put his hand on McKinney’s leg. “Guess what, we’re not gay,” McKinney told Shepard. “You’re going to get jacked. It’s Gay Awareness Week.”
Watch the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Video
By the time they were done with what the pair described as a robbery gone bad rather than a hate crime, the two murderers had tied Shepard to a ranch fence, bashed his head 18 times—with fists and a stolen gun—and kicked him elsewhere, including the groin, repeatedly, according to an autopsy. He was found by a bicyclist 18 hours later in early morning, still breathing, though the overnight temperature had fallen to around 30. His wrists were bound so tight to the fencepost that authorities had trouble cutting the rope. His head was covered in blood, except for the spot where his tears had cleared a path. He died in a Colorado hospital five days later.
When Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer lowered state flags to observe a “Day of Understanding” in Shepard’s memory, a columnist in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle criticized him for giving Shepard’s death special treatment. “Lowering the flags should be an honor that is set aside only for current and former governors, ex-first ladies, judges, or ex-legislators who have passed away,” Scott Smith wrote, after listing the variously grisly and recent murder of five Wyoming residents, four of them children, none of which got the flag-lowering treatment.
You expect imbecility from the likes of the fanatics of Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas cult that won notoriety first by brandishing “God Hates Fags” signs at soldiers’ funerals then by winning a U.S. Supreme Court judgment just last March on First Amendment grounds. Westboro’s bigots, when they were much less known, were at Matthew Shepard’s funeral, too. You might expect the imbecility a bit less from more educated people, from parents, civil leaders—or newspaper columnists–though it’s also one of the themes of the play. Shepard’s murder divided them all, and divides people still. The anguish over the governor’s flag-lowering was one of the many contortions Laramie and Wyoming went through after Shepard’s torture and murder, polarizing a state that presumed itself as tolerant as it was free.
Geringer makes an appearance in “The Laramie Project,” but as an opponent of the federal hate-crime legislation that Bill Clinton sought to strengthen after the Shepard murder. “The Laramie Project” was the result of 200 interviews and an examination of court records and personal journals. All of it is fused into docudrama-type theater where the central character is Laramie itself, a city of 30,000 that calls itself the Gem City of the Plains and that, like so many small towns across the United States, Palm Coast among them, thought more of itself than the evil two of its residents perpetrated the night of Oct. 7.
“There’s a wonderful speech by the wife of a highway patrolman,” Sbordone says. “There’s another death that week of a new highway patrolman, and she talks about, he gets two inches in the paper, and everybody is making this big deal about Matthew Shepard. Why, because he’s gay? She’s trying to be nice. But she says, murder, hate crime, if you hate somebody, you murder them. But she says: gay? Prostitute? What’s the difference? And just this subtle interweaving of placing somebody’s sexuality opposite a criminal, essentially—he asked for it. There’s a number of characters who say that.”
The same Oct. 23, 1998 edition of the Tribune-Eagle that carried Smith’s column carried a brief letter by Lisa Balland and Catharine Doll, two eighth graders at McCormick Jr. High School in nearby Cheyenne. “We are appalled at the way people look at the gay community as something that is wrong and against God’s will,” they wrote. “If some of you people are Christian, we think you should already know God made human beings, and that he still loves every one of us no matter what our sexual orientation is. […] Matthew was just another human being who was gay — so what, he still had all the human parts and breathed the same air and lived on the same planet. So, are you going to punish him for being human?”
Sbordone raves about his actors, as a director should—Angela Andress, John Birney, Robert O. Dimsey, Bobbi Kessler, Leanna Gardella, Robert Gill, Jonathan Haglund, Anna Meade, Bruce Popielarski, and Sbordone himself, who narrates. He raves about the space where the play is being staged, too-basically, a storefront gallery rearranged to make new spaces—“there’ll be actors behind you, they’ll be to the side, they’ll be in front, the audience is divided this way in the space, so that we’re in the middle, we’re all around.” Laramie is the stage, though in the end, as with all things universal, the name is interchangeable. (Laramie this year, incidentally, was chosen by Money Magazine as one of the nation’s best places to retire. It has that much in common with Palm Coast’s presumptions.)
“We’re doing this because it’s a wonderful play, it’s a great play, it fulfills our mission extraordinarily well,” Sbordone says, “and we think it’s something that needs to be done in Palm Coast, in Flagler County.”
All performances at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, at the City Repertory Theatre, Hollingsworth Gallery, at City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, behind Walmart (see map). Tickets are $20 at the door. Box office voice mail: 386/585-9415.
Story originally posted on Sept. 14.