By: Sean Byrne
“It hit me so hard, that this is the first day I’m able to talk about it,” freshman Mallory King said as she sat, her head to the side, eyes wandering and a cast member’s hand on her shoulder. “I felt like a huge failure and a parent that let my child get hurt.”
Mallory King was the stage manager for the University of Mississippi’s 2013 production of The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman.
Mallory could see herself, back in the booth, controlling the run of the show, just another normal day. “I was completely oblivious to it, something had happened to my cast . . . well continue on. It wasn’t until later that I finally realized my babies got hurt.”
The Laramie Project portrays the story of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming. Matt, as his friends liked to call him according to the show, was tied to a fence, heavily beaten and left to die by two residents of Laramie, Wyoming. The murder was deemed a hate crime.
For some audiences, the issue of sexuality may not be that big of an issue, but in Mississippi, it earned the production more than a passing glance.
“I was leaving at the end of act one;” the director, Rory Ledbetter, said, “there was a group of student athletes that were hanging outside and, the irony was, I said ‘you guys need to get in there, act two’s starting.”
With the introduction of the first identified gay character during the second act, the heckling began. A group of students, including about twenty athletes, began muttering anti-gay remarks under their breath and disrupted the performance. “If I hadn’t said anything, I wonder if the events would have happened . . . are they the group that initiated it?”
This was the first performance Rory felt fine leaving partway through. He didn’t figure out what happened until the next day.
“Our classes became open forums, trying to understand what happened,” Rory remembers. “I think a lot of cast members felt very violated, they felt ridiculed, that their safe-place had been violated, and they were feeling victimized.”
Quickly, the story they were just telling on stage became all too real.
“There’s something about the cast living the Laramie Project in a nutshell,” Rory says with a bewildered expression. “There was an event that happened, there was a media storm, and there came some resolution. In many ways [the cast] have become Laramie residents in their own way and they experienced a piece of what it could have been like as a Laramie resident through this project. Art as life.”
When The Daily Mississippi first circulated the story of athletes “hurling slurs” at the production, the article went viral. It appeared on Facebook, Twitter and even news websites immediately. People were outraged, and reactions poured in from across the Untied States.
“It’s inspiring, I think, to me, to see that within twenty-four hours what had happened was around the world but only an hour after that did we see so much support,” senior Adam Brooks, one of the ensemble’s members said, his eyes lit up and his hands accenting his speech. “I think that’s a really cool testament of how people communicate and are able to share their feelings.” But no matter how much support rolled in, the department still had to deal with what happened.
“Next thing I know I’m reading my words in a newspaper or online; my first thought was I didn’t authorize that, I didn’t tell you you could use that,” Mallory said. “I was mad, very mad. Then I started to second-guess it: did I say that correctly, did I not have to say heckling? Maybe it wouldn’t have blown up.”
When director Rory Ledbetter sat down with the college newspaper, The Daily Mississippi, he knew that he would have to be careful on what he was going to say, “I knew this could blow up.” In a fair, humble manner, he wanted to state that some things were already out of proportion, “it wasn’t just the athletes, but when you get all the students together in a place or similar mindset, you get that mob mentality. What we experienced were the seeds of hate.”
Heckling and misappropriated quotes were among the least of the production’s worries though. The team knew they would have to pull through, one way or the other. So they started looking at the larger implications behind this event; started questioning why this happened in the first place: “from not knowing,” according to Adam.
“What this taught me was that we live in a world of complacency, it seems like we’re kind of numb,” Rory said, the ideas beginning to flow from his brain. “If somebody teases somebody about their weight, we let it go because it’s just something that happens. But teasing somebody about their weight is not any much as valid as teasing someone about their sexual identity.”
Which brings Rory back to the night the lives of his cast and crew were changed, some more than others. The gears are turning as silence fills the void, heavy with anticipation. “For me I let it slide,” referring back to the snickering he heard during act one from the group he saw outside, “under the justification that they don’t know better. Why did I do that?”
For the months following, the production team took some time and began to “lessen what’s happened.” At the same time, they came to understand why they were heckled and what it meant to push on.
A little before the start of the festival, KCACTF Region IV extended a special invitation to the Ole’ Miss theatre program to perform The Laramie Project in a move of solidarity and support. The team was ecstatic, honored and began to prepare right away. They were going to take this chance to present a new message: one of stopping ignorance.
For Mallory, it was about sharing her story with someone who might’ve only read it or someone who has never heard it before.
For Adam, it was the chance to bring the lesson to another audience who might encourage others to make the change.
For Rory, it was no longer about the cast, about the personal success, or about the recognition. “You’re doing this for everyone in the community who is scared to come out and who needs a strong voice and needs some courage.”
Matthew stayed in the hospital for six days. He passed away on October 12, 1998. In 2009, fifteen years later, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
“You’re doing this for other people.”