The Laramie Project Brings Its Powerful Message to PFW for One More Weekend
Following the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, the public reckoning with the surge in hate crimes against the LGBTQ community came into sharp focus. When The Laramie Project came into being a few years later, it was less a documentation of that story than it was the response throughout the Laramie, Wyoming community where it took place. The play confronted the frightening reality for many who feared similar outcomes in a world where they never felt completely safe.
Now, more than 20 years later, it would be easy to think those fears are in our rear view mirror. But for many, that reality continues, now for transgendered people in particular. Seeing the threat of violence to those who are still considered “the other,” The Laramie Project is not a dated piece of history but rather an unfortunate ongoing threat. As Purdue Fort Wayne moves into its second and final weekend of performances of the 2003 drama, John O’Connell, Dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts, steps back into the role of director at the university, something he hasn’t done there in a few years.
“I haven’t directed in the department in five years,” O’Connell said. “I’ve directed a few other places like First Presbyterian, but I am not a faculty member anymore so I haven’t been directing here. But our theatre department chair is taking a sabbatical in the spring, and that left an opening, and I was asked if I wanted to direct a show.”
O’Connell had directed the show when he was in Arkansas in the early 2000s when the show was still new. He wasn’t sure how if it was still timely.
“A lot has changed since then, and I was concerned it wouldn’t hold up. But looking at it through the lens of 2021 there are still many things that work. There’s a scene where a lesbian mother talks about her fears for herself and her child, and there’s a time when a truck drives by her and then stops and turns around. And she’s very fearful for their safety though the truck just drives away. The actress who is reading that monologue is Black, and I asked her if she thought about Black Lives Matter as she was reading it. She said ‘That’s exactly what I was thinking about.’”
The show is a series of monologues which allow the people of Laramie to express their feelings in the wake of Shepard’s murder, and there are eight actors playing 63 different people. O’Connell was in an unusual situation for him, something he really hadn’t experienced in his time in Fort Wayne.
“I don’t teach anymore so I didn’t know these students, and they didn’t know me,” he said. “It was very challenging, and I didn’t really like that part of it very much. I’m used to having personal relationships with the students because I’ve had them in class, and I’ve known them from my work as a director or chair or faculty member. I had to figure out how each one needed to be spoken to, and I had to watch my temperament a bit because they didn’t know me.”
One way he did get to know them was through talking candidly with them about their own feelings about issues of gender and sexuality. O’Connell himself is gay and has a husband and sees how the feelings about that have changed over the years, but he also knows that there are young people who are still finding their own path on the journey. In fact, even as much progress has been made and acceptance has grown tremendously for marriage equality, there are still many who are victims of the kind of hate the killed Matthew Shepard.
“The show is about Laramie, not a show about Matthew’s life. But at the end we project photos of Matthew and then we end with photos of three transgendered people who were murdered or kidnapped and murdered in May 2021. So these things are still happening, and to look at these photos, it’s very powerful. After last weekend’s shows, I had many people who said they couldn’t really speak after it was over.”
The Laramie Project can be seen at Williams Theatre on the Purdue Fort Wayne campus November 18-20. Tickets are available at pfw.edu/tickets.