Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger
The Laramie Project is a play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the torture-murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student in 1998. Mutilated and almost dead, he was found tied to a barbed wire fence just outside Laramie, Wyoming. That fence was the inspiration for the play’s logo. Matthew Shepard died of his injuries shortly after being taken to a local hospital. The murder was called a hate crime, but in 1998 there were few hate crime laws, and there was none in Wyoming.
Shortly after Matthew Shepard was killed, Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and interviewed dozens of local people about the murder. The play draws on over 400 hours of interviews with residents of Laramie, as well as company members’ own journal entries and published news reports. The Laramie Project is divided into three acts. Eight actors portray more than sixty characters in a series of short scenes.
The play has been performed all over the US and internationally as well. Venues have included high schools, colleges, and community theaters across the US. As of this writing, The Laramie Project has also been performed at professional playhouses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, Fred Phelps and his merry band of haters have frequently picketed The Laramie Project.
This week, The Laramie Project is on the playbill at the University of Mississippi, known to students and Southeast Conference sports fans as Ole Miss. The play has been well received, and presented without incident until last Tuesday evening. About 20 freshman football players are taking a course in the arts and part of the course requirement is for them to attend a certain number of plays. Tuesday night, the players allegedly instigated a disruption and heckling in the audience. I say “allegedly” because the investigation is still ongoing. Among other things, audience members, allegedly egged on by the players, began yelling homophobic slurs at the cast. Catcalls of “faggot,” “fag,” and worse were heard coming from the group. They encouraged other audience members to join in with the heckling, taking pictures, and generally behaving badly. Play director Rory Ledbetter said the audience reaction was “borderline hate speech.” Cast members and the characters they were portraying were heckled for their body types and sexual orientation, among other things. Ironically, only one member of the cast is gay.
“I am the only gay person on the cast,” Garrison Gibbons said. “I played a gay character in the show, and to be ridiculed like that was something that really made me realize that some people at Ole Miss and in Mississippi still can’t accept me for who I am.”
As soon as theater faculty figured out the heckling had started in the group of football players, House Director Lyda Phillips, who is a theater major and an athletics ambassador, called a coach, who then called Drew Clinton, the Associate Director of Academic Support, asking him to come to the auditorium. According to the person I talked to on campus, he was furious, ordering the student athletes to apologize for their behavior. After the play, the players went backstage to meet with the cast. One of the players acted as spokesman for the group. Some of the cast members cried at the apology.
Ole Miss Theater Department Chair Rene Pulliam was quoted by the Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper, as saying. “…I’m not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for.”
Rory Ledbetter told reporters, ““The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night, but they were definitely the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say things, too. It seemed like they didn’t know that they were representing the university when they were doing these things.”
Thursday morning, head football coach Hugh Freeze sent a Tweet that has been picked up by sports media tweeted Thursday morning: “We certainly do not condone any actions that offend or hurt people in any way. We are working with all departments involved to find the facts.”
By way of background, for those who may have seen the movie, The Blind Side, Freeze was Michael Oher’s high school football coach. His real name was not used in the movie; instead, he was called “Coach Cotton.” Freeze has a reputation for being a strong leader who does not tolerate nonsense, and demands his players behave themselves at all times, insisting on excellence both on and off the playing field. As my on-campus informant told me yesterday, “Hugh Freeze is no Joe Paterno.”
The University also issued an open letter to the public and students over the signatures of Chancellor Dan Jones and Athletics Director Ross Bjork. The letter condemns the actions of the group, and makes it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. The entire letter can be seen here.
The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation is named after former Governor William Winter. The Institute has been active after other controversial incidents on campus, and I just learned the are now involved with this incident. They are making plans to keep more incidents like this one from happening on campus again. There are plans underway for athletes and students to attend some sort of cultural sensitivity training sessions.
Last spring, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs created the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT). Its mission is, “…to support the university’s efforts to establish and sustain the university’s expectations around inclusivity and to provide an atmosphere that supports a healthy curricular and co-curricular experience.” BIRT Co-Chair Merrill Magruder said the cast and crew of The Laramie Project have stressed they did not want to see punitive action, but rather make this an educational opportunity for those who were in attendance.
This morning, University officials investigating the incident say they are having difficulty making positive identification of who was involved. For the individuals who have been identified, officials and faculty are not sure about the degree of involvement. Part of the problem is the fact the theater was dark.
Adding to the University administration concern is the fact that October is LGBTQ month at Ole Miss. Last Thursday there was a reception at Bryant Hall. Chancellor Dan Jones, Athletics Director Ross Bjork, and other campus leaders spoke at the reception. Student cast members and faculty advisers were also at the reception. Next week, during LGBTQ month, the University will host Pride Week. The last thing the University administration and student body leadership want is another incident.
At any rate, there will not be enough time to determine exactly who did what, and what must be done before the Auburn game today. In the body of this story I have provided links to the Daily Mississippian so the reader can follow events as news develops.
It will probably be sometime next week before decisions are made. What do you think is the most appropriate way for this university, or any other school, to handle this situation or one like it?