Production Workshop takes on powerful hate crime play


Jennifer Bautista

Seniors Natalia Szarmach and Carson Dowhan rehearse lines in the Little Theater.

Production Workshop, Northgate’s highest level drama class, has taken on the daunting challenge of performing a hard-hitting, heartbreaking play about an anti-gay hate crime in the late 1990s. “The Laramie Project,” written by Moisés Kaufman in 2000, is a tragedy about the reaction to the murder of college student Matthew Shepard.

The story behind the play is a shockingly dark part of modern day hate crime history. On Oct. 6, 1998, near the University of Wyoming campus, the town of Laramie woke up to the horror of finding Matthew Shepard, a student at the university, bound to a fence, beaten and left for dead. Shepard was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died six days later. This tragedy-turned-trial became the basis of Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project,” named after the town in which the heinous crime occurred.

Production Workshop members hope to bring a sense of justice and awareness to a hate crime committed around the time many current Northgate students were born. As senior Emily Greenlee, who has several roles in the play, remarked, 1998 “was not that long ago.”

The crime resulted in the convictions of Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who were arrested shortly after the attack. During their trial, the prosecutor accused McKinney and Henderson of pretending to be gay in order to gain Shepard’s trust. Both men received life sentences.

Although the perpetrators of the murder were imprisoned, many believe that Shepard and the LGBTQ+ community did not fully obtain justice. While both men displayed evident anti-gay sentiments and motives during the trial, neither was charged with what was clearly a hate crime, igniting a series of protests and appeals for justice that rippled throughout the nation.

Shepard’s tragic story of a life cut short by hatred has resonated throughout the country for over eighteen years. His suffering has inspired the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which his family started with a mission to eradicate hate and to promote compassion and acceptance for all. The foundation has had a pivotal role in influencing the Matthew Act, a 2009 Act that expanded the federal hate crime law to include crimes committed due to actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. His brutal murder serves as a painful reminder that prejudice, discrimination, and violence against the LGBTQ+ community is still a prevalent issue.

Enter Kaufman with his play, which has been performed nationwide by high schools, colleges and community theaters. Students in Production Workshop were quite shaken by the initial reading of the play, which drama teacher Jeff Hagerstrand selected.

“We read through the entire speech and a lot of people had to leave because they were crying,” said senior Emily Greenlee. “Especially since a couple of the people in the class are gay or bi or something like that, including me, it kinda hit home.This kind of thing actually happens, and it was very scary for me.”

Senior Chloe Brooks, an actress in the play, found it difficult to grasp how people could be so cruel and intolerant. “Thinking about it now, growing up in California and in America, how people back then, not even that long ago, had such negative thoughts, and how I could never think like that,” Brooks reflected.

As the play is brimming with explosive, powerful issues, each actor was faced with the challenge of conveying their characters in a way that would have deep emotional resonance with the audience. The actors also grappled with the technical challenge of portraying multiple parts in a way that distinguished each character.

“I play Amanda Gronich,” senior Natalia Szarmach said. “She is one of the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, who was one of the writers of the play, and I play Rachel Debree, the sergeant for the police force in Laramie, Wyoming.” Szarmach said she researched previous portrayals in order to establish her own depiction of the characters. She was able to differentiate between the two characters by modeling Amanda after her own personality, and giving Rachel a distinct Southern diction.

“I have three parts because there are a lot of parts in the play so everybody got either triple or quadruple cast,” Greenlee said. Greenlee prepared for her lengthy monologues by researching news reports and statements by the actual Rulon Stacey.

Production Workshop members, who operated the entire performance ranging from staging, lighting, acting to publication, hoped for a reflective response from the audience.

“Ultimately I hope it’s eye-opening for everybody,” Greenlee remarked. “Wow, the world still needs some work. We need to really keep trying to help people become more open minded.”

For those who harbor negative opinions about homosexuals, Greenlee hoped that watching the play altered their perspective, and caused them to acknowledge the potentially harmful repercussions of their actions. “I think a big problem at this school is that people don’t understand how serious certain things are. People make racist jokes, sexist jokes, homophobic jokes, and say, “Oh, no, it’s not an issue anymore,” and I hope it will help people understand that this is still an issue and you shouldn’t take it lightly.”

Performers expressed passion regarding the play’s message. “You’ll leave the play, and you’ll be like: something needs to be fixed here because there’s still an issue,” said Szarmach. “After reading through it a few times and playing the characters, you really feel a deep connection to the real people and what actually happened, and it almost feels like you were a part of it. I mean, I think I speak for all of us when I say, personally, it’s almost like we feel affected by it. We want people to come so they can understand what happened and why it’s wrong.”

After a performance of “The Laramie Project” on Oct. 28, students voiced positive reactions.

“Deep. Moving. Relevant to modern world issues,” junior Haley Kim summarized succinctly.

“And I especially feel like the actors and actresses really portrayed the emotions of the real people,” said Olivia Zapantis, a junior. “I liked how the play was just a bunch of interviews, and they were portraying the emotion behind it, and these real facts were being put out there, it wasn’t just some fictional play. And it was really exposing a lot of stuff.”

“It was really profound and it attacked a lot of unspoken beliefs that people have,” junior Emily O’Mahoney remarked. O’Mahoney also praised the inclusion of many viewpoints. “It wasn’t just one take. It was everyone’s take. And that’s what made it so realistic.”