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'Laramie' to Loudoun

NVCC play reflects on issues of tolerance, violence.

Eighteen students from Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) — Loudoun Campus are staging a play about the healing of Laramie, Wyo., "a town defined by a crime."

The story takes place 1,500 miles away, but it is a story that hits close to home.

"We’re looking at a story of a town. It could be any town in the United States," said Catina Anderson, a Countryside resident who is earning her third degree in music education. "Could this happen in Sterling? Could this happen in Ashburn? How could we prevent something like this from happening? It makes people think about tolerance and hate and evaluate where they stand."

Anderson referred to "The Laramie Project" by Moises Kaufman, which describes the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder committed by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who, like Shepard, lived in Laramie and later were sentenced to life sentences. "The Laramie Project" was originally performed in Denver in December 2002 four years after Shepard’s death. Students from Acting II and two staff members will perform the play at NVCC's Waddell Theater on Friday.

IN OCTOBER 1998, Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, asked for a ride home from a Laramie bar, and the two men said they would give him the ride. On the way, they stopped, tied him to a fence and beat him to death. Shepard was a homosexual.

Kaufman and nine members of the Tectonic Theater Project took a year-and-a-half to interview 200 people who were connected in some way to Shepard, though he never appears in the documentary or docu-play, to tell the story of the aftermath of his death. The play has 25 parts and includes direct quotes from the interviewees, which include Laramie residents, University of Wyoming students, a rancher, the first police officer to respond to the scene, a Unitarian minister and Shepard’s academic advisor, along with his family and friends.

"It’s really dealing with a controversial issue," said 18-year-old Richard Meader, first-year student and a Herndon resident. "Homosexuality is an issue brushed under the rug."

At the beginning of the play, several characters say they are not prejudiced against homosexuals, but they learn that they are and do not want to admit the prejudice, Meader said, adding that one of the characters he plays changes. At one point, his character says, "I can’t believe I said those things."

"This play is about more than sexual preference. It’s about any type of tolerance," Anderson said. "It’s about hatred and violence."

The two men chose violence as an option to solve a problem, said Henry MacCarthy, adjunct drama instructor who is teaching at NVCC for the first time this semester and a freelance director and drama coach for opera singers. "In the times where we live, … we are using violence as a means to solve problems. It’s very important to understand why we are, as a country, doing this."

MacCARTHY REQUIRES the class to research their characters and compare Laramie to Loudoun County and to conduct group presentations and write related research papers on a variety of topics, including tolerance, the history of legislation on hate crimes, the Neo-Nazi movement, the Ku Klux Klan and crimes against Muslims after 9-11. "The reason for choosing it, it is a play that relates to my students here today, right now. It opens up … themes and emotions that are current and can be grasped," he said. "I hope they leave the course with questions about how they feel about what’s going on in our country right now. By that, it’s not about the war in Iraq. It’s about everything. Theater should make you uncomfortable … make you ask questions."

At the same time, the research process "was extremely interesting and beneficial to understanding why things happen in the play," Anderson said.

"I feel like I know this play inside and out," Meader said.

Besides the group presentations, MacCarthy requires the mandated mid-term and final examinations, along with improvisation and other exercises, and in-class scene presentations.

"The Laramie Project" will be staged at 7:30 p.m. on April 25 at the Waddell Theater and will be included in the Loudoun Campus’s annual spring festival, which includes art exhibitions, four film presentations, and poetry readings during the month of April. Some of the students will perform more than one part for the play.

"It’s not your standard production. It’s a little bit different," MacCarthy said.