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Play depicts reaction to hate crime

By Dave Thompson

Bismarck, ND – This week -- the drama department at Bismarck State College is presenting "The Laramie Project."It's a play based on the reactions and emotions of real people in a real city in Wyoming, following a hate crime.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was killed after two other men tied him to a fence post outside Laramie and pistol whipped him until he became unconscious. It received national attention -- because Matthew Shepard was gay. And it was characterized as a "hate crime." But "The Laramie Project" is not a dramatization of that incident.Dan Rogers will be directing the play.

"About a month after that incident, a group of actors from the Tectonic Theater project in New York actually went out to Laramie to try and document what people were thinking. The incident had received a lot of national attention, and a lot of difficult social issues, political issues, moral issues, media issues were coming up and being talked about. The community was being forced to deal with issues we usually don't deal with, that we don't really discuss."

Rogers says the play is less about the actual incident, but is really interested in the people's reaction to the incident. "I like to say that it's about good hearted people dealing with very difficult issues."

Rogers says the issues raised by this play are not black-and-white, and there are no easy answers.

"Hate speech, the connection to hate crime, the whole sense of what Laramie went through in terms of 'how can that happen here? We're good people. We grow good kids.' ' Hate is not a Laramie value' was one of the signs put up all over town. But the fact is -- it happened there. And the town is going through a trauma. And a lot of these issues -- it forces you to stop and look at how are we doing things. Are there things that we could be doing better?"

Rogers says it is probably the most exciting theater project he's had at Bismarck State. And he says the students cast in the play feel the same way. He says it started the first night of rehearsals.

"I skipped the usual ice-breaker games, and things that I usually do, they didn't seem right for this. And I said, 'let's go around in a circle and tell me about your connection to this play from your initial read.' And I was amazed at the depth of emotional reaction, the experiences that came out - friends who were gay, who have been the victim of humiliation, of hate speech, degradation, live in fear.")

"It's been very emotional," said Stephanie Storhaug of Bismarck. She's one of the actors.

"Just from listening to some of the dialogue of the characters in the play, and like, you know, that's my viewpoint on it. Some of them, you see yourself and what you think. And some of the other ones, you can't believe they're saying that, almost, because you're so against what they're saying. It's interesting -- there are all kinds of emotions. There are funny parts, and there are parts when you can hardly keep yourself together."

David Puma is also acting in the play. He says the experience has opened his eyes to the hurtfulness of hate speech.

"You necessarily don't murder someone by calling someone a fag. But it's kind of the seed of it. And I won't put up with that any more. And I'll be more open, of course, for the rest of my life. It's been almost a life-changing experience for me."

Rogers says if anything, "The Laramie Project" is designed to get people talking about the issue of hate speech and "gay bashing."

"We want to start a dialogue. We want people to talk, and we want people to be aware, and more sensitive and more tolerant."

Storhaug and Puma say they, too, hope the audiences will use this play as a starting point to talk about the issue.

"I hope that they will see that this doesn't just happen in other places," said Storhaug. "We're really not that different from Laramie, Wyoming. And we tend to think that we're secluded up here, and nothing can ever happen here. And it can happen here."

Puma agreed. "And for them to come out and realize that Matthew Shepard was a real, young man that had real parents and real people that murdered him, it kind of hits home more. And you realize how serious it is, that the problems that we have become more real. The social issues we have become more real. And once we see them in a better light, we can face them better. And we can learn to deal with them."

The play begins Wednesay and runs through Saturday at the Sidney J. Lee auditorium at Bismarck State College. Performances begin at 8 pm each evening.