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Politics on Stage

Congressman joins a cast of play about aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s 1998 death in Laramie, Wyo.

Main Street in Laramie, Wyo., came to the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church last weekend, as the Providence Players of Fairfax performed “The Laramie Project,” a three-hour play telling the story of the small town’s upheaval following the brutal assault and murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in 1998 by two other Laramie residents.

Playing an arraignment judge for three performances of the play is U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11), and while not his first foray onto the stage, it might be his most politically relevant role.

“It’s a riveting play,” he said of “The Laramie Project,” and despite only being available for a handful of appearances due to his hectic schedule on Capitol Hill, he was glad that director Tina Thronson was willing to give him the small part. The arraignment judge appears on stage only for a brief while, reading the charges against the two men found guilty of killing Shepard.

Connolly was in Congress last fall when the Hate Crimes Prevention act was passed, during which Shepard’s mother, Judy, was in attendance. In what was widely seen as a historic moment guaranteeing tougher sentencing regulations for crimes committed against gays based on their sexual orientation, Connolly was horrified to hear U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) call Shepard’s death a hoax while his mother was in the room.

“I wanted to make my own statement,” Connolly said about his decision to approve the bill. “I’ve always been a strong supporter of anti-discrimination legislation. I just think intolerance and discrimination against any group is wrong.”

“The Laramie Project” is not a typical theatrical production with scenery or dialogue. Instead, the story of Laramie following Shepard’s death from the perspective of residents, cops, detectives, college staff, the local bar owner and bartender, friends of the accused, local reporters and members of clergy. Using more than 200 interviews collected over the course of a year by the New York City-based Tectonic Theatre Project, the play has been performed in cities across the country for the past 10 years. While the cast typically consists of only a handful of cast members to portray dozens of characters, it is clear that the Laramie of 1999 is gone.

Shepard’s attack is referred to in a number of ways: “the incident,” “the attack,” “the gay issue” or simply “what happened to that boy.” In one of the early jaw-dropping moments, an actress reenacted the role of the person who found Shepard, bound and tied to a fence.

“Halloween was coming up,” the character said, hands clenched, eyes unblinking. “I thought it was a dummy. I saw his chest moving up and down and thought it was some kind of mechanism. It wasn’t until I saw his hair that I knew it was a person.”

But while Shepard was clinging to life in the Poudre Valley Hospital, the University of Wyoming had its annual homecoming parade, which included a contingent of 200 people wearing armbands in support of Shepard and his family. By the end of the parade, one character recalled, the number of marchers wearing armbands at the end of the parade had doubled.

Thronson, who brought together her cast and had the play onstage in roughly 12 weeks, lived in Laramie for 16 years, moving to Fairfax County the year before Shepard’s death.

“This is about civil rights and human rights” she said of the play. “What happened to that poor boy, it says something about who we are as a society and the myth of the west, the way of life in the city versus in the country. It’s terrible what happened to him, and I don’t want to play down that what happened to him happened because he was gay.”

Pointing to the Hate Crimes Prevention Act as an example of the many strides that have been taken to prevent or discourage crimes against homosexuals or grant them equal standing under the law, Thronson said that much remains to be done, possibly starting with the repeal of the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provision that prohibits openly gay men and women from serving in the military and calls for the dishonorable discharge of those who admit to being gay.

At a time when the U.S. is fighting a war on multiple fronts, the government is preventing and firing of gay service members from doing their jobs, Thronson said. “Those soldiers are a kind of human resource, and they’re being marginalized because of their sexual orientation.”

Connolly said later that when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” comes up for a vote, which may happen later this year, he’ll vote to repeal it.

“I just think it’s a nonsensical policy,” he said. Having openly gay service members “isn’t a problem in Germany, Israel or Canada, our NATO allies,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem here.”

But Thronson also wanted to make sure to portray the people of Laramie as who they are, not taking the easy road out and portraying them as caricatures, which may have been an easy thing to do.

“I know these people, I lived with them for 16 years,” she said.

And the people of Laramie were just unfortunate to find themselves in the situation, she said. It’s why she chose not to include a photo of Shepard in the images that flash on a screen throughout the play. “Matthew is everyone’s son,” she said. “This is really every town. Because it could happen anywhere.”

The emotional play took its tool on the cast, many of whom have participated in Providence Players productions in the past.

Ari Post and Jimmy Gertzog, who each played several characters in the play, said this was some of the heaviest fare they’d faced onstage.

“It’s really rare to be onstage all the time,” said Post, who acted through high school. He wanted to be part of this production “for personal reasons,” adding that it “touches on pieces of my life like it does for a lot of people. It’s an issue we’re still dealing with.”

Gertzog called his roles “challenging” because all the actors remained on stage for the vast majority of the play.

Knowing that the play dealt with real people from a not-too-distant past made the play a totally different experience for Zurri Conroy, who played a local reporter and Muslim student challenging the idea of discrimination in Laramie. “I remember hearing about Matthew Shepard when all this happened, which makes this really personal. This happened when I was in high school,” she said.

Mario Font has been in “The Laramie Project” before, but wanted to take it on again in order to recite the recollection of a gay man watching the homecoming parade and witnessing the growth in support for Shepard in the course of an hour.

“When I rehearsed the lines, the tears just started,” he said. “I managed to pull it together for the performance, but it was tough. It’s important to do this play so people won’t forget. It’s been 12 years and often, with time, things fade away. It’s important not to forget.”

The importance of the play, to Susan Kaplan, “is to keep at the forefront that this is discrimination. People cannot be complacent.”

She wanted to be involved in the play because it is timely, given the numerous gay/civil rights issues on the Hill right now, she said.

“We weren’t sure what kind of response or audience we’d get, but it’s been rewarding,” she said, considering the audience for Friday evening’s performance was nearly at capacity.

Leta Hall played police officer Reggie Fluty, one of the responding officers who treated Shepard when he was first discovered and later had to be tested for HIV because Shepard was HIV positive and her gloves were torn and may have come in contact with his blood.

The play opened on Good Friday, the last Friday of the Lenten season before Easter, and Hall said that timing may have reflected well on the play.

“A lot of what this play deals with, like redemption and forgiveness, are pertinent to the Easter season, she said. Gay rights may “come and go” as a topic of conversation, but “it never stops being important.”

This production “The Laramie Project” also marked the acting debut of Smitty Connolly, Connolly’s wife who has spent many years working behind the scenes, he said. She plays two residents of Laramie and the Mormon home teacher of one of Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney; a woman who helped him become a clergy member in their church later to be disowned by the faith for his actions. Despite his actions, Smitty Connolly’s character said, he deserved to have some comfort while facing life in jail.