Correction appended: This article incorrectly stated “The Laramie Project” cast member James Wolk is a sophomore. The story should have said James Wolk is a junior.
Today is Friday. Today is the second day of “The Laramie Project” at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre; the second day that Matthew Shepard’s story will be resurrected in front of an audience; the second day that the voices of Laramie, Wyo., will gather together again on stage.
Tomorrow is Saturday. Tomorrow is the day that Fred Phelps’s caravan will make its stop at what he calls, “the sodomite whorehouse, propaganda mill and recruiting depot masquerading as the University of Michigan,” and wage war against “Laramie.” Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church will protest the play much like he protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, shouting the phrases responsible for his fame: “God hates fags,” and, “Matthew Shepard will burn in hell for all eternity.”
Seven years and about a month ago, Matthew Shepard was beaten, robbed and left to die – tied so tightly to a fence that the police had to take out their knives and cut him down. The two men accused and sentenced for the crime were methamphetamine users, but that doesn’t make the crime any less their responsibility. Matthew Shepard was openly gay, but that doesn’t make his murder any less of a hate crime.
Three days ago, at “Laramie’s” first dress rehearsal, the show’s director, Robert Chapel, doesn’t want to talk about Fred Phelps or protests. Chapel’s hope is to tell the story truthfully. His idea of a successful show is one in which the audience is respectful throughout and moved at the end. Honesty is especially critical in this play; the story of “Laramie” is actually the story of the town itself – before Shepard’s death in a hospital bed and for two years afterward, Moises Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project stayed in Wyoming and interviewed the townspeople of Laramie. The play is just the sum of their emotions and experiences.
And a sense of significance hangs around the performance. The buzz from Phelps’s protest and the counter-protest from the LGBT community, multicultural organizations and everyman students have thrown this play, willingly or not, into the center of “the gay issue.” Music school junior James Wolk, who plays (along with nine other characters) the accused murderer Matt Galloway, said backstage, “We do shows from the ’40s and ’50s and the 18 and 1900s, but to be in a contemporary show that’s raising contemporary issues – this affects the whole campus.”
Fred Phelps makes an appearance in the play, condemning Matthew Shepard to hell at his funeral with a “God Hates Fags” sign while the cast sings “Amazing Grace.” This is the moment that hits hardest for Kendal Sparks, “Laramie’s” stage manager, who said backstage, “You have the juxtaposition of two distinctly religious messages, but somehow Phelps’s hateful god looks pitiful next to the quiet power of the true, loving God.” Sparks is the only gay member of the production.
At the funeral, Phelps wasn’t assaulted (as is frequently the case). One of Matthew’s friends arranged for him to be surrounded by supporters dressed as angels. On stage, the angels form a silent barricade between the screaming Phelps and the audience – as if to put aside any conflict or controversy for just a moment – in order to better honor the life of Matthew Shepard.