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In ‘The Laramie Project,’ Sac State theater students tell powerful and still-relevant story

Sac State students rehearse "The Laramie Project," which retells the story of the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard. The actors and director say the play remains timely and relevant nearly 25 years after Shepard's death. (Sacramento State/Brenna Dunivan)

Phoenix Brewer, like most Sac State students, wasn’t born when Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered outside of Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.

It wasn’t until he began reading “The Laramie Project” earlier this fall to prepare for his audition for Sac State’s production of the landmark play that Brewer found out about how Shepard, an openly gay man, was pistol whipped, tied to a fence post, and left for dead.

He was shocked, both at the murder itself and at the fact that he had never learned about it.

Eight actors posing for a photo on a stage
The eight student actors in "The Laramie Project" portray approximately 60 different characters, and remain on stage throughout the duration of the show. (Sacramento State/Brenna Dunivan)

“It’s interesting seeing how pieces of art like this … can open you up to a wider history you’re not aware of,” Brewer said. “There’s so much more in the world that isn’t taught. You have to search and dig for it or you won’t find out.”

Nearly a quarter of century after Shepard’s death, the Sac State students and faculty putting on “The Laramie Project” say it is nevertheless a relevant and powerful story at a time when the rights of LGBTQ people and others continue to be under attack.

“As much as we make progress forward, it feels like we're always taking a step back,” said director and Sac State Theatre and Dance Lecturer Casey McClellan. “With this play, hopefully we’re saying, keep that momentum moving forward, don’t let up.”

“The Laramie Project” uses the real words of Laramie, Wyoming residents and others to tell the story of Shepard’s assault and death, the subsequent murder trial, and the impact these events had on a small town that found itself the site of an international debate over homophobia and hate crime legislation.

The play’s script comes from hundreds of interviews the Tectonic Theater Project conducted with Laramie residents after Shepard’s murder, as well as media accounts and journal entries from members of the theater company.

The eight student actors portray approximately 60 actual people – law enforcement and hospital officials, Shepard’s friends and family, religious and political leaders, local residents, and members of the theater company – and recite the characters’ actual words. The actors remain on stage for the duration of the show.

Some characters are sympathetic, even heroic. Some are simply trying to make sense of what happened in their city. And some are detestable: One of the actors must play Fred Phelps, the vehemently anti-gay pastor whose church stages a protest outside Shepard’s funeral.

Each actor plays at least one character who harbors anti-LGBTQ bias, something that has “been pretty difficult,” said Robert Wayne Holwell III, who is gay.

Among the many characters he plays are a gay Laramie resident who is proud of both his identity and his hometown, and the Mormon CEO of the hospital where Shepard was treated, who objects to homosexuality on religious grounds.

“It's really taking yourself out of your frame of mind and putting yourself into how the character feels,” he said. “The difficult part is having to realize there are people who feel like that. Not sympathizing with that, but trying to portray that in a way that is correct.”

McClellan, who also is gay, said in early table readings and conversations, the cast members began drawing parallels between Matthew Shepard’s murder and more recent issues, such as the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

“You have someone who was cruelly murdered, tortured, abused, unnecessarily, and at one point it sparks a movement, it ignites change, and much-needed change,” he said.

"It’s not about a gay-straight issue, it’s about a human life issue. The privileges that we have today that are because of all the activism everyone has put forth. Plays like this have brought the conversation to the mainstream.” -- Richard Angulo, Sacramento State student and Delta Lambda Phi member

Shepard’s murder brought increased attention to hate crime legislation at both the federal and state level. In October 2009, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding existing U.S. hate crime law to include crimes motivated by an actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

McClellan noted that “The Laramie Project” is one of the nation’s most-produced plays.

“For me it’s like the diary of Anne Frank. It's one of these shows that we're going to continue to do and we're going to take these lessons from these tragic horrible circumstances, and we're not going to let them go,” he said. “Sometimes we just want to erase and forget, but we're not going to forget because we're still in the battle, we're still moving forward.”

On Nov. 18, McClellan and the cast will partner with Sac State’s PRIDE Center and Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity for men who identify as LGBTQ, to host a “Queer Night” performance, aiming to fill the audience with the LGBTQ community and allies. After the show, Delta Lambda Phi will host an informal discussion between the actors and the audience, known in the theater world as a talk-back.

Richard Angulo, a Sac State student and member of Delta Lambda Phi, said the work of LGBTQ activists in the wake of Shepard’s murder paved the way for a society where gay men and others who identify as LGBTQ can be open about their identity and discuss their issues publicly.

“The Laramie Project,” he added, played a role in bringing those issues to the forefront and spurring change in the form of hate crime legislation.

"It’s not about a gay-straight issue, it’s about a human life issue,” he said. “The privileges that we have today that are because of all the activism everyone has put forth. Plays like this have brought the conversation to the mainstream.”

“The Laramie Project” opens Thursday, Nov. 3. For more information and tickets, visit the Theatre and Dance department webpage.

Actors in a rehearsal space, walking in a circle carrying wooden chairs.
"The Laramie Project" director Casey McClellan said the student actors, seen here during rehearsal, made connections early on between Matthew Shepard's murder and modern-day issues, such as the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. (Sacramento State/Brenna Dunivan)


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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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