One by one the student actors file across a darkened, desolate stage. The find their places and tell the story of how a small American city – Laramie, Wyo. – became known across the globe as the site of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in 1998.
Their characters talk about their feelings. Their reactions to a gruesome hate crime in their midst. Their grief.
“That’s not how it is here,” says one of more than 60 characters in “The Laramie Project,” being presented this weekend at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. “Or maybe, that is how it is here.”
Audience members are left to sift through all the powerful messages of the play, and to come to their own conclusions about its multiple themes. The humanity that binds us together. The hate that tears us apart. Accepting someone who is different from yourself. Continuing your life after something terrible happens.
Forty H-F actors are in “The Laramie Project” cast. Showtimes for the play are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mall Auditorium. Tickets are $9 for adults and $6 for students and seniors.
Kelli Simpkins, a co-creator of the play, explained how the work came about at a special student assembly at the high school Thursday. Her talk followed students performing about 30 minutes of the three-act play.
Simpkins praised the cast as “an incredibly talented theater company” and thanked director Jill Bonavia-Galligani for helping bring the play to H-F.
“The Laramie Project” is based on more than 200 interviews with residents of that city following Shepard’s killing. A New York City dramatic company, Tectonic Theater Project, sent its members to Laramie; after that it took about a year to put the play together. Simpkins was one of the original interviewers and helped write the play. She also appeared in the cast of “The Laramie Project” when it opened in Denver in 2000 and moved to Off-Broadway in New York.
“We had no idea it would be a play when we started,” Simpkins said. “I certainly did not think that it would still be performed 16 years later at high schools and colleges across the country.”
Simpkins said Laramie residents dispelled any preconceived notions that Tectonic Theater Project members may have had about coming to a conservative community in the Mountain West.
“That town ended up being incredibly kind, gracious, confused and grief-stricken,” she said.
Residents invited the interviewers from New York into their homes on multiple occasions. They held potlucks for “The Laramie Project” principals. Interviewers met with members of Laramie’s LGBT community but also with college professors, doctors, police officers, friends of the accused, Shepard’s parents and everyday folks who were fighting with their feelings about the crime. Their responses make up the body of the play.
After the play’s New York run, cast members came back to Laramie and put on three performances at the University of Wyoming auditorium. Simpkins said cast members were extremely nervous about performing in front of the people whose voices made up the text of the play. Nearly everyone in the audience knew someone whose words were being recited, or were themselves those persons.
“I will probably never have an experience like this ever again,” she said. In the end, the response to the play in Laramie was overwhelmingly positive.
“I love Laramie, Wyoming,” she said.
Simpkins is still a member of the Tectonic Theater Project and is also an artistic associate of About Face Theater in Chicago. She has been in numerous plays and her television work includes “Empire,” “Betrayal,” and “Law and Order C.I.” Her films include “A League of Their Own” and “Chasing Amy.” She received an Emmy nomination as a writer for HBO’s production of “The Laramie Project.”