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'Laramie' Sparks Dialogue, Not Controversy

Lake Braddock production receives acclaim for tackling the controversial drama.

It wasn't a big-name musical, or Shakespeare, or another classic drama. But Lake Braddock High's theater department's spring production drew plenty of attention for other reasons.

Under the approval of school administration, the department performed "The Laramie Project," a controversial drama that deals with the issues of homosexuality and violence surrounding a high-profile murder case.

"I don’t think a lot of people consider the subject as needed to be talked about. I think a lot of people think it can’t happen here. We’re way too tolerant, too pleasant a society, nobody’s going to do that to somebody here," said R.L. Mirabal, artistic director for Lake Braddock's theater.

Braddock's production of "Laramie" garnered nine nominations, including "Best Play," in this year's Cappies competition. Winners will be announced Sunday, June 5, at the annual event at the Kennedy Center.

Mirabal said he had selected the play in mid-September, 2004, along with the school's other plays for the season. He presented the list to administrator Deborah Morey, who approved the selection of "Laramie."

Written in 2001 by playwright Moises Kaufman and members of New York's Tectonic Theater Company, "The Laramie Project" was created in response to the 1998 murder of 21-year old college student Matthew Shepard outside Laramie, Wyo. Kaufman and other members of Tectonic conducted hundreds of interviews with townspeople and other parties involved in the Shepard murder. The play features actual interview statements by many of those people, including Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men convicted of the Shepard murder. These characters speak to the audience and to each other, as they put the pieces together in the aftermath of the case that grabbed national headlines after the two suspects confessed in their defense that they targeted Shepard because he was a homosexual.

Mirabal said what attracted him to the play was its lack of a specific agenda.

"A lot of people believe flat out it’s a play about Matthew Shepard … and they automatically assume it’s anti-hate crime. Sure, it might be construed as that, but that’s not the thrust of the play," said Mirabal. "The thrust of the play is what does this town do with itself after all this crap happens?"

IN PREPARING for the play, Mirabal took his students to see a production of it at Catholic University, where they came away excited about the challenge of tackling the non-traditional play.

"It’s an issue that’s been out there for a long time … It’s an important issue, and I was really proud to be a part of it," said senior Andrew Froelich, who played Kaufman in the production and is nominated for a Cappie award for Lead Actor in a Play. "I thought we were doing a good thing, more than educating, more than entertaining, we were doing the right thing by trying to make something out of this play."

"I think it’s about people’s different opinions," said Mark Jennings, a junior who portrayed McKinney in the production. "It’s got people from as far left as you want to go to as far right as you want to go, and everyone in between. There’s at least one character that everyone can say ‘Oh yeah, that’s how I feel.'"

Lake Braddock presented performances on three nights, with an average attendance of around 300, a modest attendance, but solid for "a play nobody had ever heard of," according to Mirabal.

In addition to the support of his school administration, Mirabal said he received personal approval from Roger Tomhave, coordinator for Fine Arts for the Fairfax County Public Schools' Office of Instructional Services.

Virtually no negative response occurred in the community to the production, said Mirabal, who said his main concern was that Rev. Fred Phelps, a real-life minister and one of the characters in the play, would attend the production and protest, as he has done in other cities where "Laramie" has been performed.

SCHOOL BOARD member Stephen Hunt (At-large), who in February sent a letter to all Fairfax County high school principals urging more balance in treatment of the homosexual lifestyle in schools, said he put "The Laramie Project" on the list of plays he attended this spring, along with J.E.B. Stuart, Herndon and West Springfield High.

"It’s somewhat of a controversial issue, so as I chose which plays I wanted to se. I was curious to see how they would handle the issue," said Hunt, who applauded Lake Braddock students for their treatment of the play

"Technically, they did a wonderful job on the play. They did a phenomenal job," he said.

Hunt said, to him, "Laramie" was a political play, in the sense that "it has an agenda that comes across which is quite apparent … to make a political statement regarding the concern about the harassment and physical abuse of people who are in the homosexual lifestyle."

Hunt went on to say that he agreed with the play's conclusion, adding, "No one should be physically abused based on the way they are living their lives," and said the manner in which "The Laramie Project" addressed the complex issues involved in the Matthew Shepard murder was a good thing for Fairfax County students to take on.

"I think they certainly have a right to do plays that address controversial issues," Hunt said. "I think that’s a great thing for students to do, as long as the discussion allows for free and open discussion of all sides of the issue, and not just pushing one side of a controversial issue and allowing discussion on all sides."

"There's no doubt a play like this can open up dialogue, but the important thing is to allow this to be a true dialogue."

THE SPRING theater season has been controversial for other reasons in Loudoun County, where the School Board there is currently constructing guidelines about sexual content in theater productions. The action is a result of negative response to, "Offsides," a one-act play performed at Stone Bridge High School. The play features a scene where two male students appear to kiss, before the lights go out.

Mirabal said he believes the action in Loudoun County is "really scary."

"I’m worried about the classics," he said. "'Romeo and Juliet' deals a lot with sexuality. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve done in my 15 years, that would just shut down for me."

Mirabal downplayed the controversial subject matter of "Laramie" as being a factor in its receiving Cappie nominations.

"Having it doesn’t so much mean approval (of putting on a controversial play like "The Laramie Project") as we did a good job with it," he said.

Both Mirabal and Hunt emphasized the importance theater, and the arts in general, can have in starting dialogue on hot-button issues such as homosexuality.

"Much of the intent and use of art has always been political. It’s a use of art to bring out issues," said Hunt. "As long as there’s the opportunity for true dialogue from all sides of the issue, because you’re not going to come to understanding if you don’t allow both sides to express and understand each other."

Mirabal said he has been encouraged by the response from those who attended "Laramie," as well as the school community.

"There’s no way … we’re ever going to get to a situation as a society where we can talk to each other, if we can’t talk to each other," he said. "This is a play, because it balances both sides, that allows you to begin to start conversations."