A cultural battle takes center stage

Play: A conservative group may sue to keep `The Laramie Project' off the University of Maryland campus. Its supporters say it doesn't recruit homosexuals, as its opponents fear.

August 24, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Oscar Wilde once wrote: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." The same could be said of The Laramie Project, the play that is sparking the latest salvo in the culture wars.

Conservative Christian leaders have said they might file a lawsuit against the University of Maryland in an attempt to block the distribution of 10,000 copies of the play to all freshmen and to other students living on the College Park campus.

This fall, students will stage a production of the play, and Moises Kaufman, the work's primary author, is scheduled to visit the campus.

"Another major university is forcing students to view a controversial issue from a very slanted position," the Virginia-based Family Policy Network says on its Web site. "This time the issue is homosexuality, and the school is using a brutal crime as a Trojan horse."

Those involved in productions of The Laramie Project say it doesn't recruit homosexuals, as its opponents fear. But it isn't necessarily objective. It does have a point of view. Or rather, it has several.

"The play has an agenda, but I don't think it's overtly slanted to one side," said Chuck Benjamin, communications director of the Olney Theatre Center, which recently finished a successful - and uncontroversial - run of the play.

"The word `homosexual' or `gay' raises such a searing red flag in the minds of some people that they're blind to the possibility of hope or redemption that a play like The Laramie Project offers."

Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, died in October 1988 after he was robbed, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence post and left to die.

The following month, Kaufman and other members of the Tectonic Theatre Project in New York paid the first of six visits to Laramie, Wyo., where they conducted more than 200 interviews with townspeople. The interviews were compiled into 68 characters.

A movie version of The Laramie Project was broadcast in March on HBO and was nominated for four Emmy Awards, including best made-for-television film, best director and best writing. An HBO spokeswoman said the film was not targeted by protesters before or after the broadcast.

"What people don't get is that this is not a play about Matthew Shepard," said Jeffrey LaHost, managing director of the Tectonic Theatre Project. "He is not a character in the play. His father only comes in at the end.

"Instead, our intention was to portray the variety of points of view that we observed in Laramie. This play is about the townspeople dealing with the crime during the year after it happened, and with the way they were portrayed in the media. This is a story about a town in trauma."

Kaufman is openly gay, as are some other Theatre Project members, and LaHost said the actors were disturbed that initial televised accounts of the murder included commentary from right-wing groups.

"I can't think of any other minority group where it's still hotly contested whether or not it's OK to kill them," he said. When a black person is murdered, he said, "no one thinks they have to get an opposing point of view from the Ku Klux Klan."

At least one conservative leader, Stephen M. Crampton of the American Family Association, said that as of this week, he had not read The Laramie Project. If he picks up the play, he probably will find passages that support a viewpoint that the play is biased, as will those who take the opposite stance.

LaHost dismissed claims that the play endorses a homosexual lifestyle, although he acknowledges that it "espouses tolerance and deplores hate crimes." He emphasized that the writers of The Laramie Project didn't make up any of their material. "These are the actual, verbatim words of the people we interviewed," he says.

But when more than 200 interviews are culled to about 150 minutes, much is necessarily left out, including details that might arouse sympathy for one of the defendants.

Russell Henderson was raised by an alcoholic mother and was physically abused as a child. She was found lying dead in the snow a short time before his case was scheduled to go to trial.

In a play based on a murder, viewer sympathy is likely to accrue to the victim. But just as the Rev. Roger Schmidt says that he "does not mean to condemn Matthew to perfection," neither does The Laramie Project.

It does not attempt to hide Shepard's occasionally dangerous lifestyle. At the time of his death, he was HIV-positive, and Reggie Fluty, the female sheriff's deputy who came to his aid, was exposed to the deadly virus when she tried to stanch his wounds without gloves.

(After months of taking drugs that caused her to lose 10 pounds and much of her hair, Fluty tested negative for the virus.)

Also included is testimony that Shepard made a pass at one defendant, Aaron McKinney, as he and Henderson were giving Shepard a ride home.

McKinney's friends describe him as peaceful unless provoked. "He was fine [with gay people] as long as, you know, they didn't hit on him," said a young woman identified in the script only as Jen. "As long as it didn't come up."

No one in the play endorses Shepard's murder. Perhaps the most conservative of those interviewed, identified only as a Baptist minister, says he hoped McKinney and Henderson would get the death penalty.

The people with the greatest qualms about the justice of imposing capital punishment were some of the play's most vocal liberals.

"On a personal level, I knew Aaron McKinney in school," says Zubaida Ula, who talks eloquently about the subtler discrimination she faces as a Muslim woman living in Laramie. "We never called him Aaron. He was called A.J. How can we put A.J. McKinney - how can we put A.J. McKinney to death?"

In the end, McKinney and Henderson were sentenced to life in prison.

Sun staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this article.

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