By Steve Wong
Seeing a situation from different perspectives is one of the things we humans do either well or poorly. When we do it well, we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of diversity. When we do it poorly, we often refuse to understand and certainly don’t appreciate the lives and deaths of other people.
That being said, Proud Mary Theatre Company is now presenting a live play –The Laramie Project – through July 24 at the USC Upstate Amphitheater that makes us look through the eyes of scores of people to understand how a single significant event can change the lives of millions of people — whether we like it or not.
At its core, The Laramie Project is play about a New York City theatre company that takes on a “project” to research, record, and understand the circumstances and fallout of when a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming, was kidnapped by two homophobic men, tied to a fence in the wilderness, and savagely beaten nearly to death in 1998. The eventual tragic death of Matthew Shepard and the convictions of his murders shook the cowboy town to its bootheels, and the reverberations were felt around the globe igniting social changes that are still impacting our lives today.
It would have been too easy for playwright Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project to just write a traditional play with a few key characters based on what they learned. Instead, they wrote and produced a play about their entire process of visiting Laramie in the aftermath of the killing. Granted, it’s not the first time that a play has been written about the theatrical process. But it is probably the first play to incorporate hundreds of interviews — from dishwashers to priests, cops to robbers, mothers to fathers, rednecks to medical doctors — into what is referred to as verbatim theatre — using the actual words said by those interviewed. Personally, I see it as very creative journalism on stage.
It would seem that structuring a play with more than 60 characters would certainly be a challenge for any playwright and the theatre companies trying to produce it. In The Laramie Project each character, who in one way or another was impacted by the death, is quickly introduced by a voiceover before they step forward to tell their own brief stories. Some productions have used 20 or more actors to create these roles. In its most-often-used form, about eight actors are used to take on multiple roles. One might think it would be hard to keep the characters straight, and it would be, but I found it not really necessary. At some early point in the play, knowing which actor is portraying which character is secondary to what is being said.
Here the word is mightier than the fists that pounded Shepard to a bloody pulp. Here we try to understand how some people tried to rationalize the killing, that gays flaunt their lifestyles, that morality is different in Wyoming, that things just got out of hand. Here we come to know the uncertain fear of the law enforcement officer who tried to help the victim and got HIV-tainted blood on her hands. We hear from a straight theatre student who funded his schooling and developed his own character by participating in gay-themed plays. We hear the gut-wrenching statement of the victim’s father as he stood before the court and one of the killers, trying to find peace in his despair. And we hear from stoned old girlfriends, aging gay men, bartenders, frustrated hospital staff, cab drivers, angry ministers, angrier protesters, the tsunami of media. Taken as a whole, all of these short testimonies give us perspectives that culminate into an ugly understanding of what a hate crime can do to those in the inner circle and those who circle the tragedy from near and afar.
Because of the COVID 19 pandemic, Proud Mary Theatre and Director Dr. Ben Dawkins have taken the structure of this play a major and creative step forward by incorporating video interviews, giving us an even more impactful theatrical experience. By local design, we have 10 live actors portraying characters, and interspersed throughout the play, other actors portray even more characters through recorded video on a large television screen that sits next to the outdoor stage at the amphitheater in the Susan Jacobs Arboretum at USC Upstate. I commend Dawkins for this creative multimedia accomplishment that was seamless and seemingly organic.
In reality, Proud Mary Theatre had originally planned to produce The Laramie Project in 2020, but the pandemic stopped any such play that would call for actors and patrons to gather together. Instead, they produced a full-length streaming production of the play that aired last fall. With all that video footage of the characters and their stories at his disposal, Dawkins saw the opportunity to combine some of it with live actors on stage. You know what they say about the Mother of Invention.
To single out any of the actors in this production would be unfair. Each was called upon to be many different characters, and all performed exceptionally well. For the record, here are their names and my admiration.
Live Cast: Laura Bunn, Schuyler Carson-Jackson. Robyn Cheezum, Quinn Davis, Doug Egge, Samantha Eyler, Jalen Gray, Najee Joyner, Robert Penninger. Sarah Rackley and Audrey Waldrop
Video Cast: Ryan Barry, Robin Cheezum, Michele Colletti, Ava Davis, Kelly Davis, Quinn Davis, Doug Egge, Samantha Eyler, Darryl Harmon, Jim Huber, Dave LaPage, Anne Robards, Rebecca Schledwitz, Tyler Smith, Audrey Waldrop, and Chase Wolfe.
Not in recent memory has this reviewer left a play, haunted by voices, voices that remembered Matthew Shepard. The Laramie Project, especially this production by Proud Mary Theatre, gives you perspectives that you might have never thought would enter your small world of understanding. Shepard was just a small skinny kid, looking for his way in life. He never got the chance to find it, but we the living still have that chance, if we only look at life through the eyes of other people and their perspectives.
July 15-24, Thursdays-Saturdays @ 7 p.m.
USC Upstate Amphitheatre
Gramling Drive, Spartanburg, SC
Tickets are $15-20 and available at the door or at proudmarytheatre.com.