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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Review: UC Davis’ production of ‘The Laramie Project’ uses the past to comment on the present state of LGBTQIA+ rights

Cast and crew members discuss the creative process and why they feel the 1998 story is still important today

 

By SAVANNAH ANNO — arts@theaggie.org

 

Content warning: This article contains discussions of homophobia and violence. 

 

On Feb. 22, the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance debuted their production of “The Laramie Project,” written by Moisés Kaufman and various members of the Tectonic Theater Project.

The play centers around the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay, 21-year-old political science student at the University of Wyoming. At the hands of two men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, Shepard was abducted, beaten and left tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming on Oct. 7, 1998. On Oct. 12, 1998, Shephard succumbed to his injuries at a Colorado hospital and died. 

Reaching national news, Shepard’s murder became “one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history,” according to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. With vigils and protests held all over the country in honor of Shepard, his story is now used to challenge individuals and communities everywhere to stand up against homophobia and bigotry. 

“The Laramie Project” follows the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project as they conduct hundreds of interviews with Laramie locals, university students and those involved in the murder investigation. Gathering testimonials, news statements and their own journal entries, the group created a script focusing on the local and national aftermath of Shephard’s murder. 

Directed by Granada Artist-in-residence Scott Ebersold, the UC Davis production is dependent on the performance of its eight-member, all-student cast. Combined, they work to portray over 60 different characters that recount Shepard’s murder, the media’s response and the trial of Henderson and McKinney. 

Madeline Weissenberg, a fourth-year theatre and dance major, played seven different characters over the course of three acts. In a particularly poignant scene between Amanda Gronich, a member of the Tectonic Theater Project, and the Laramie Baptist Minister, Weissenberg acted as both characters at once, moving back and forth. 

Taking on multiple roles, Weissenberg explained how the actors are able to distinguish one character from another.

“A lot of it is figuring out how the character would stand, how they would walk through the space,” Weissenberg said. “Things like that really helped to ground me into all these different characters. Asking questions to myself about what the characters’ thought processes are is also huge. If I can figure out what they’re thinking at any given moment, I can figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing.” 

By changing their voices, postures, hand movements and small accessories like jackets or glasses, each actor was able to smoothly transition from one perspective to another. Each played a wide variety of real people, some of whom were supporters of Shepard, and some of whom were very clearly not. 

Ryley Sakai, a fourth-year economics and design double major, moved from the charming and comedic roles of Doc O’Connor and Matt Galloway to blatantly homophobic Fred Phelps, for example. First-year managerial economics major Arman Abbassi portrayed Dr. Cantway, who treated Shepard when he first arrived at the hospital, as well as Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men that murdered him. 

Third-year cognitive science major Ananya Yogi said it was difficult but rewarding to play characters they would personally never want to interact with in real life.

“[This play is] able to show the black, the white, the gray,” Yogi said.“In order to see the light in this play, you need some of that darkness. We as actors are here to tell everyone’s stories. There are moments when you go ‘I don’t feel good doing this,’ but you don’t have to feel good.” 

Debuted in February of 2000, “The Laramie Project” is 24 years old, and has been seen by an estimated 10 million people in 13 different languages, according to Playbill. There’s a reason the production is still performed today. 

“It’s something that isn’t talked about as often as it should until something like it happens again,” EJ Agata, a third-year English and theatre and dance double major, said.

On Feb. 7, 2024 at Owasso High School, non-binary student Nex Benedict was victim to “what the police said was a ‘physical altercation’ in a high school bathroom,” according to The New York Times. 

The following day, after being suspended from school, Benedict was rushed to the hospital and later passed away. Benedict’s death has sparked national outrage from the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies, many of whom believe the attack was a result of Oklahoma’s anti-transgender laws

“It is a similar, horrible situation that happened to Matthew Shepard,” Agata said. “I think it’s really important for the student body to understand that this isn’t fiction. It’s something that happens all the time. It’s something that happened in the past and something that continues to happen.” 

After the opening night show on Feb. 22, the cast and crew along with Gloria Partida, Davis City Council member and founder of the Davis Phoenix Coalition, and Blake Flaughner, director of the LGBTQIA+ Resource Center, also hosted a Q&A for audience members. 

The group answered questions about preparing for roles, why they think the play is important and how it connects to their own experiences today. 

“As someone who works to support students, and having been in this role for the last four months, I have really experienced a new side of my own queer life,” Flaughner said. “A lot of things have come up that I haven’t experienced since I was a teenager. There’s still a lot of shame and I hate that we’re still people dealing with this, this kind of hate and bias.” 

On March 10, 2013, Partida’s son, Lawrence Partida, was the victim of a hate crime in Davis. Assaulted as a result of his sexual orientation by a 19-year-old Davis resident, Lawrence Partida was left with a fractured skull. Following the attack, Gloria Partida formed the Davis Phoenix Coalition, an off-campus LGBTQIA+ resource center. 

“Ten years ago when this happened for my son, it was a time where we really felt like we were turning a corner; he really felt like he was safe,” Partida said. “So it just shook the entire community. As I was listening to the actors talking about how the town [after Shepard’s murder] kept saying ‘this is not who we are,’ I kept thinking: but it is who we are. It is who we are no matter what town that we’re in unless people stand up. Unless people fight back and continue the work.” 

A heart-wrenching story, “The Laramie Project” offers insight into how a community grapples with homophobia and the aftermath of hate crime. Each actor brought unmatched energy and emotion into each person they portrayed, creating a production that not only highlights the impact of hatred but also the hope and acceptance that is necessary to resist it. 

Written by: Savannah Anno — arts@theaggie.org

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