Same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, and many have commented on how swiftly public opinion on gay rights seems to have changed. But 18 years after a 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student was kidnapped, severely beaten, tortured and left to die, tied to a fence outside Laramie, violence against LGBTQ people is still common in this country, and in many places deemed more “socially acceptable” than other types of hate crimes. One need not spend much time on social media before encountering the word “gay” being used as a term of insult, and suicide rates are still high among LGBTQ youth.
So the issues raised by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard have not gone away. And The Laramie Project – the powerful theater piece assembled by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project from interviews with more than 200 Laramie residents during the trial of Shepard’s attackers – remains as timely as ever. A new production of the play by the Theatre Department at SUNY-Ulster opens this Thursday at the Quimby Theater in Vanderlyn Hall, running through April 17.
“After Matthew’s death, it took ten years to pass hate crime legislation on a national level when president Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. Yet today violence is rampant in the gay, lesbian and transgender community,” points out Theatre Program coordinator Stephen Balantzian, who is directing The Laramie Project. “Anti-gay legislation is still tried today. In the play, Jonas Slonaker, an openly gay character, asks, ‘What has come of this, what’s come out of this that is concrete or lasting?’ The play presents many issues such as homophobia, tolerance versus acceptance and discrimination. Yet I hope the play encourages contemplation and conversation.”
SUNY-Ulster is reaching out to local LGBTQ youth and their allies by scheduling a special daytime performance specifically for area high school students, followed by a talkback featuring Fred Mayo, board president of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center. “We have students coming from LGBTQ clubs, Gay/Straight Alliances…we’ve had an overwhelming response from our community and are looking forward to sharing The Laramie Project with our audiences,” Balantzian says. “We think the message of compassion and acceptance will resonate – especially for the high school students.”
Regular performances of the play will begin at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, April 7 to 9 and 14 to 16, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinées on April 10 and 17. Students get in free; general admission is by a suggested donation of $10 at the door. SUNY-Ulster is located at 491 Cottekill Road in Stone Ridge. For more info about the production, call (845) 688-1959 or visit www.facebook.com/suny-ulster-theatre-department-presents-the-laramie-project-490783207773398.