Hate Crime’s Aftermath Focus Of University Of Scranton Players’ Next Show

October 10, 2018

Twenty years to the day Matthew Shepard died, the University of Scranton Players will bring to life a story about the aftermath of the hate crime that claimed his life.

“The Laramie Project” opens Friday, Oct. 12, at the Royal Theatre in the U of S’s Joseph M. McDade Center for Literary and Performing Arts, and runs Fridays through Sundays through Oct. 21.

Moisés Kaufman’s play debuted in 2000, two years after Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson kidnapped Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, tied him to a split-rail fence in the Wyoming countryside, beat him and left him to die. Shepard succumbed to his wounds a few days later, and his death eventually led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

In his play, Kaufman does not show Shepard or his death but rather the residents of Laramie, Wyoming — where Shepard lived — and their thoughts and actions following the murder. A cast of five men and five women will portray nearly 100 roles, director Robert Gasper said, telling a story he believes can apply, in the current climate, to not just gay people but also any minority.

The play remains relevant today, echoed actor Nick Yanni, a Scranton resident and U of S sophomore, “and that’s why I think it’s important people see it.”

“It’s not just homosexuals; you can apply it with any race or anything else,” Yanni said. “It’s interesting how Laramie — the setting itself, the people there — I think it’s reflective of the entire world.”

Members of the cast were able to approach their roles with a perspective not many in their place usually have, thanks to a program they attended in Weatherly last month that featured a talk by Dennis and Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s parents. The students met with the couple after the program, which Gasper said “made it very real” for the students.

“I think it definitely made them sit up a little straighter, and ... they have more respect for the piece,” he said. “And I think they have more understanding of who these people are that they’re playing.”

Yanni was 1 when the play came out, and he was surprised to learn it derived from true events. When the cast first read through the play, he said, people gasped. Yanni portrays a mix of anti-gay and pro-gay characters, including Dennis Shepard. It opened his eyes, he added, and “even as an actor, it really has added a lot to my life as well, which I really didn’t expect to happen.”

“Because it’s so real, it feels like you want to know more about the situation,” Yanni said. “You want to know more about the people, and so it definitely adds a challenge, but it makes it more interesting as an actor that this was real.”

One of Gasper’s former students, up-and-coming musician Kiley Lotz, aka Petal, composed an original song and score for the U of S’s production at Gasper’s request. He compared the music during the play to underscoring in a film and said the final song provides the audience with a bit of a release at the story’s end.

“It’s a really great song,” Gasper said. “(Lotz) looked at some of the themes and the monologues in the play (and made the song) about the Wyoming wind.”

The play is a factual piece, Yanni said, and the cast does not “shove any views down people’s throats.”

“So we’re hoping that people see what we’re conveying and hopefully have a chance to think about what we showed them,” he said.

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If you go

What: “The Laramie Project,” presented by University of Scranton Players

When: Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 12, 13, 19 and 20, 8 p.m.; Sundays, Oct. 14 and 21, 2 p.m.

Where: Royal Theatre, Joseph M. McDade Center for Literary and Performing Arts, University of Scranton

Details: Tickets cost $10 for adults and $7 for senior citizens, students and U of S faculty and staff; second weekend performances are free for first-year U of S students. For tickets, call the box office at 570-941-4318 or visit thescranton players.com.