Oakton High School
On their trip to Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, members of the Tectonic Theater Project were greeted by a sign that read, "Wyoming: Like No Place On Earth." Whether this slogan was a welcome or a warning to the bucolic state is up to the interpretation of the audience of The Laramie Project. Duke Ellington School of the Arts has transformed this documentary theatre work into a unifying, passion-filled production, brimming with thoughtful performances as it brings the seemingly-innocuous town of Laramie to life.
On October 12th, 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, died after being violently attacked in a homophobic hate crime. Later that year, Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited the rural town and conducted a series of interviews with townspeople. The group compiled these interviews, media reports, and company members' journal entries into the verbatim theatre piece, The Laramie Project. First premiering in Denver in 2000, productions of "The Laramie Project" have been performed worldwide countless times since - including a 2002 staging in Laramie.
Duke Ellington's cast members worked in tandem to display the array of individuals depicted in the show. Since each performer was tasked with playing several parts, Duke Ellington's actors used a variety of dialects and postures to give each of their roles a distinct presence. Through their precise Western-region accents, naturalistic timing, and demonstration of Laramie's subtle intolerance, the company made the town breathe with life onstage. The cast had the complex task of portraying the beliefs of these real-life people without being hagiographical or judgmental - a challenge they overcame with aplomb.
Nate Miles-McLean displayed incredible nuance as college student Jedadiah Schultz. Miles-McLean gradually showed Jedadiah's reexamination of and departure from the conservative views of his hometown. His climactic defiance of his parents' homophobia felt victorious, thanks to Miles-McLean's fully realized development of Jedadiah's arc.
Robert Hackett added touches of humor to the somber show through his witty portrayal of limousine driver Doc O'Connor. Erik Ventura elicited strong empathy as he played Aaron Kreifels, who discovered Matthew's body, with haunted survivor's guilt.
As Rulon Stacey, a hospital worker who relayed updates on Matthew's health, Jada E. Gainer showed incredible poise as she held back tears while imparting an emotional message from Matthew's mother to parents everywhere.
Eric Chaney deftly conquered the challenge of playing two intensely juxtaposing roles. After caustically representing Aaron McKinney, Matthew's attacker, Chaney returned moments later to depict Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father. As he delivered Dennis's statement in court, Chaney's effective transition from grieving his beloved son to granting McKinney mercy from the death sentence was unforgettably powerful.
The remarkable ensemble of actors created a multitude of significant moments, with a standout scene being when attendants of Matthew's funeral united in a mellifluous rendition of "Amazing Grace" to drown out abrasive anti-gay protestors, representing the play's dichotomy of love and hate. A sense of community was palpable between the players, as they watched one another perform with unwavering attentiveness from either side of the stage.
To connect to the play's conviction of the importance of "owning" your mistakes, Duke Ellington's marketing and publicity team invented the "Own It" campaign. This mission encouraged students to take responsibility for their actions and to accept themselves in the face of discrimination.
The mature artistry of Duke Ellington's top-flight performers unified to ensure that this memorial to Matthew Shepard left an indelible impact on its captive audience. Through their graceful exploration of tragedy, this production of The Laramie Project shone brightly as the sparkling lights of Laramie, Wyoming.
Westfield High School
In the southwest corner of Wyoming, there lies a town by the name of Laramie. Though quaint in size, the magnitude of its history, and the event which shook the United States to its core, forever bears an impact on communities across the nation. Two decades later, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Theatre Department seeks to retell Laramie's story, and the narrative of Matthew Shepard, in their production of The Laramie Project.
Debuting in 2000, The Laramie Project recounts the true events of Laramie, Wyoming, and its townspeople following the brutal attack on Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, on October 6, 1998. During the six days leading to his untimely death, his story spread nationwide, causing unrest in every corner of the country. The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, was constructed using over two hundred interviews by the townspeople of Laramie in a genre of drama known as verbatim theatre. The production's arduous themes of violence and homophobia resonates deep within the show as it harbors both the harrowing events of the past and pressing subject matters of the present.
The cast of performers in this production sought to recreate the narratives of the Laramie people through imitating the rawness and humanity of a town struck with tragedy. Each actor and actress contributed to the ebb and flow of emotion throughout the play, which fluctuated dramatically from melancholy and despair to contentment and elation. The cast carried a standard of authenticity that engrossed the audience in Laramie's story. The crescendo of drama leading to the gut wrenching end of Act One serves as an example of the overall cast cohesiveness and attention to detail the students possessed. The diction and projection the thespians utilized further enriched their performance, as each cast member was clearly understood throughout the entirety of the show.
Perhaps the most impressive detail the department achieved was individuality between characters, as over seventy roles were divided between the seventeen students. Whether it be the thick accent of Phil Labrie (Nate Miles-McLean) or the emotional deterioration of Rulon Stacey (Jada E. Gainer), the cast treated their audience to immense depth, and a vast array of characters with distinctive stories the guests could cohere to.
In technical areas, the department pursued an ingenious minimalistic design, allowing the narrative to be heavily dependent on the performance of its thespians. The few technical aspects that were utilized were appreciated additions that further enhanced the production. The stage was raked, elevating the rear, allowing each actor's face to be visible from wherever they stood. The only set pieces used were chairs that served multiple purposes throughout the show. Subtle lighting elements accented the scenes, along with the emotions the cast portrayed. The amplification of speech by hanging microphones achieved pristine clarity in the sound, assuring each actor could be heard.
Philosopher George Santayana once wrote, "Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it." In a production that serves as great retrospect of the nation's past, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Theatre Department's The Laramie Project sheds a light on how far the country has come fighting the prospect of hate, as well as the road yet traveled towards tolerance and peace for all.