Duke Ellington’s ‘Laramie Project’ offers lessons in production, prejudice

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Duke Ellington High School's Laramie Project reflects on the world today. Image courtesy: Duke Ellington High School

by Katherine Rivard

Pop culture has created the illusion that the LGBTQ community is universally welcomed and celebrated. Moonlight, a film portraying the life of a young, gay black man in Miami, received the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture. Taylor Swift donated over $100,000 to a LGBTQ advocacy group last month. The country is tittering over the potential for Mayor Pete to become the first openly gay presidential nominee, and Lori Lightfoot is now serving as the first openly gay, African-American woman to run Chicago.

Despite these signs that society is edging towards greater equality and diversity, the events that do not make the headlines sometime show another story at play. In 2018, school-based hate crimes rose 25% for the second year in a row. Since 2013, at least 128 transgender people faced fatal violence, 110 of whom were people of color, and largely women. At the legislative level, more than half the states in the country do not have explicit statewide laws on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Furthermore, just last week, the Texas Senate passed a bill that, if pushed forward, would legalize discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals.

Then again, some of these events do make the news: like in 2016, when the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, specifically targeted LGBT people and became the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11.

To highlight the need for greater legislative action and increased representation of this and other marginalized communities, Duke Ellington’s students are proud of their most recent production, The Laramie Project.

The play centers around the real-life investigations surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, WY. In 1998, Shepard, an openly gay college student, was beaten and tortured, then left on the side of the road. He died 6 days later at the age of 21, and his untimely and gruesome fate opened a wider conversation nationwide surrounding hate crimes.

Over 20 years since Shepard’s murder, The Laramie Project is still painfully relevant. Its storytelling continues to shed light on hate crimes and to prompt conversations around the topic. Beyond simply sharing this story with the community, Duke Ellington School’s performance provided an opportunity for students at the school to learn about facing discrimination and celebrating sexuality, race, gender, religion and journey.

The performances took place between April 11 and 13. Students at the school connected with the play’s message as they prepared for the event and through a campaign focused on these topics. Speaking with Quincy Corsello, a student marketing representative at the school and a 10th grader, the play resonated with him as he considered his own community: “It’s been an educational and enlightening experience. My personal take is to learn from what my peers and loved ones have been through.”

Though the heavy topics can be emotionally draining, and sad, Corsello recognized the relevance and importance of the play’s message today.

A group of students even took a trip to the National Cathedral, where Shepard now rests. Shepard was only recently buried there, as his parents had worried that his grave would be vandalized.

In the past, the play received pushback in some communities and whirled up controversy; this was not the case at Duke Ellington. Instead Corsello pointed out how “deeply rooted” the values of the play are in the school community. Ken Johnson, chair of the school’s theatre department and the show’s producer, hoped the play would leave “the audience wondering how they could improve their own communities, take responsibility, and enact change in their daily lives.”

In fact, this is not the first time the Duke Ellington School has put on the play: The Laramie Project was also performed there 12 years ago. The school usually runs one large production per year, in addition to 4-5 smaller shows. According to Dawn Naser, a faculty advisor, “the piece was chosen because it’s something we need to tackle, especially with everything going on in the world.”  

In addition to creating a greater understanding of the imperative for welcoming communities, rid of prejudice and welcoming of differences, the students also learned valuable skills. Each play requires an impressive amount of work put into the production, learning not just the story, but also how to run the show. As a sophomore, Corsello worked with Naser, including speaking with media, assisting with proposals, advertising, and coordinating the panels. Freshmen focus on research, while the cast is made up of juniors and seniors.

The final showing of the play took place on April 13th and was followed by a panel discussion, which included Bishop Gene Robinson as a panelist and Michele Norris as the moderator. Robinson is a longtime family friend of the Sheperds and is the first openly gay bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church. He spoke at Sheperd’s service in October 2018. Norris is a radio journalist and was the first African-American female host for National Public Radio.  

Wrapping up a conversation with Corsello and Naser about the play, the hard work of the students, and the importance of the messages, Naser provided one final take away: Even the most progressive, open-minded people have prejudices.

Projects like this one provide the audience and cast with a time to reflect on the world today, their own prejudices, and how they can each make a difference in transforming the future.