As The Laramie Project takes center stage in Founders Hall this week, a number of MBS faculty members are incorporating the themes surrounding the play and the legacy of Matthew Shepard into their classroom discussions.
Written by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project focuses on the community’s response to the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
At MBS, the play has given students, faculty and staff an opportunity to address topics such as civil rights and social justice through many lenses.
Kate Muttick’s 10th graders recently completed a lesson on “Confronting Hate Crimes” and started by reading a New York Times/Scholastic article called “Remembering Matthew Shepard.” The students then read the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, picking apart the language before researching and discussing a number of questions including:
· What is a hate crime and how is it different from other types of crime?
· What might be the motivation for committing a hate crime?
· What measures were necessary in order to get this law passed?
· What effects has this law had on incidents of hate crime in this country?
“Although students assumed hate crimes had diminished since Matthew’s death, we dug into the data,” said Mrs. Muttick. “Working with a partner, students explored the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. We looked at trends over 20 years and the presence of groups and events in 2018. It turned into an engaging discussion about the origins of hate and the ways bias and injustice can be combatted.”
Students in Nikolin Eyrich’s English 11 class watched a short video about Matthew Shepard as well as his parents’ subsequent activism that resulted in the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. “During period 7, I had the good fortune of having the actor who delivers the Dennis Shepard monologue in class – Will Srere ’21 – so he performed it for us,” said Mrs. Eyrich.
Other MBS English classes – such as Dr. Owen Boynton’s 11th Grade English Honors classes – read the play itself.
“The material is intense and raw. But when you give students real literature – literature that responds intelligently to life in all of its raw and intense complexity – they rise to the challenge,” said Dr. Owen Boynton.
Dr. Boynton said that he was impressed with how his students were able to read the text critically, especially given the play’s nontraditional docudrama style.
“It is a difficult play to study because it consists of quotations that are lifted from interviews,” said Dr. Boynton. “Students sometimes want to look for symbols or literary devices, but you can’t quite do that when the words are from what people happened to say. At the same time, the words are excerpted and arranged; there’s a real design piece and students need to recognize that. It frustrates their expectations of what literature is, productively.”
Dr. Patrick Horan said that The Laramie Project ties in nicely with his 11th Grade English class’ focus on American literature, “particularly the notion that, as Americans, we are all different, yet we all share a common identity.” In class discussions, Dr. Horan’s students connectedThe Laramie Project to other American plays including Death of a Salesman, which they read recently. “The students drew connections in terms of the minimalism in both plays as well as the disillusioned characters who are trying to redefine themselves,” said Dr. Horan.
The students also read an interview with playwright Moises Kaufmann and “had a healthy discussion about why people are afraid of differences, and whether our students have ever experienced prejudice first-hand,” said Dr. Horan.
For an extra credit assignment, Dr. Horan’s students will have an opportunity to write a paper and reflect on the social and political messages of the play. He said that his students have not read the entire play yet — "just enough to spark their interest and make them want to see a performance at MBS."
The Laramie Project has two more performances in Founders Hall on Friday, November 8th and Saturday, November 9th at 7:30 p.m.