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McDaniel College presents 'The Laramie Project,' based on gay student's murder

For those starring in "The Laramie Project," opening Thursday at McDaniel College, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, occurred nearly a lifetime ago. During the show, the students in the cast will try to recapture the national conversation sparked in the aftermath of Shepard's death.

"The Laramie Project" takes place in Laramie, Wyoming, after Shepard's murder. The crime, in which Shepard was targeted, beaten and left for dead by two men because of his sexual orientation, made national news and inspired a piece of legislation, the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

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The play features 14 actors playing more than 90 characters, including Shepard's friends and family, figures from the murder trial and members of the media who traveled to Laramie to cover the case. The show was created by the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York theater company that traveled to Laramie to interview residents of the town. The interviews form the basis of the play.

Senior Josh Harding, of Federalsburg, said he thinks it's sad this is a story that still needs to be told.

"We're all just people who need to respect each other's differences," Harding said. "[This show] humanizes things. With the news media and all, things become so impersonal, and it takes shows like this to help personalize hate crimes and make you realize these things happen to actual people."

Harding recommends that audiences bring tissues but not expect a total downer. He said the play contrasts the tragedy with moments of lightness, humor and hope.

Director Elizabeth van den Berg, of Westminster, said the time had come to produce this show and share the story with the current generation.

"I was thinking about it in light of the current state of affairs, with gay marriage issues coming up recently," van den Berg said. "It's still a piece that resonates because hate crimes are still something that affect minority groups throughout the country."

Sophomore Alex Tolle, of Woodstock, said she was a year old when Shepard was beaten. She said she believes it's a different world today but not one that is completely removed from the time portrayed in the play.

"There's been a lot of progress. I think people are more accepting of other's choices, and we're making a lot of steps as a society and as human beings. We're becoming more compassionate and understanding," Tolle said. "There's a lot more to be done, and that's why I love this play and this story. It says we're not done yet. There's still a lot to do."

Harding said that although there have been strides made in public acceptance, hate has not truly disappeared — just adopted new forms.

"Hate's a lot more hidden now, with Internet trolling and things like that," Harding said. "It's interesting to see that hate still exists. In the show, we have characters who are always making gay jokes, and it's important for people to realize that that's not right."

Each actor in the play has to take on multiple roles in order to portray the numerous characters featured in the show. Tolle said it's been difficult creating completely separate personas and switching between them quickly. Everyone in the show was responsible for doing research to accurately capture the real-life people they were portraying.

"There was an added pressure knowing that these were real people," Tolle said. "I've gone and found videos to perfect how they walked, how they spoke. It was difficult but interesting."

Junior Antoinette Martin, of Cape Coral, Florida, said she's only ever played a single character in a play before. With her roles, she said it's not the switching that's the challenge, but the research she had to do for each character. Martin said her Christian faith influenced her reading of the play.

"The God I believe in is a God of love, so why in the world would a God of love be OK with something like this," Martin said. "He wouldn't see this crime and say 'Oh, he was gay,' and be OK with it. He would say this is wrong. You murdered one of my children."

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Van den Berg said she hopes people walk away from the play with a renewed appreciation for one another.

"We all have to be aware of our own humanity, and we have to treat each other like decent human being, because we do forget sometimes," van den Berg said. "We get so wrapped up in our lives, that we forget. We have to appreciate who we are, and how everybody's worthwhile and has something to offer. It's a big scope for a play, but I'm really an idealist."

410-857-7890

Twitter.com/Jacob_deNobel

If you go:

What: "The Laramie Project"

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 to Oct. 3

Where: WMC Alumni Hall, McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminster

Cost: $7 for adults and $5 for seniors, veterans, students and those with McDaniel College ID.

For more information: Call 410-857-2448.

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