On a recent, rainy Friday morning, a group of students from The Duke Ellington School for the Arts theater department visited the remains of Matthew Shepard, interred in the National Cathedral, and not currently accessible to the general public. They were there to pay respect to the young gay man who, in 1998, was brutally beaten and left to die on a fence in a remote field in Wyoming.
Among the things that came out of that horrific, hate-fueled event was a remarkable play by Moisés Kaufman, The Laramie Project, crafted verbatim from hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie, friends and family of Matthew, police officials, and news reports. The three-act play puts forth its narrative in short bursts, and is notably demanding on its small ensemble, calling on them to play more than 60 different roles.
“It’s docudrama,” says director Eric Ruffin. “You have single actors playing multiple characters throughout, and these characters are not fictitious in any way. They’re all real, live people. One of the big challenges that the actors have is how to approach [the material] with integrity, because you don’t want to get their mannerisms, their point of view wrong because they’re living beings.”
“When I first came into the cathedral, my eyes were just starstruck, because of all the architecture,” says Erik Ventura, a 15-year-old sophomore whose roles include Aaron Kreifels, the friend who discovered Shepard’s body. “But when we went down to where Matthew was laid, it provided me an epiphany of why am I doing this play. We have to do justice to Matthew, because…this is an actual person who, sadly, was killed for who he was.”
“This was the first year I’ve really heard about The Laramie Project,” says fellow castmember Jada Gainer, a 17-year-old senior. “This was also the year I really started struggling with my identity and who I am. Not only as a woman in America, but as a queer black woman in America. This show has to do with identity and how your identity can affect what happens to you — how it causes hate and violence.”
After leaving the Cathedral, Gainer “felt like a different person. It was so much easier for me to step into those characters and speak reality, rather than speak acting.”
Ventura, who is gay, feels America has made some progress in 20 years, but has far to go. “We’re going to the right path, but there are times that I am scared to be even myself at home. I remember when I was in elementary school here in D.C., I was bullied because people thought I was gay. I didn’t really know if I was, but it just gave me a preview of how people see gay people. Sadly, you just get used to it.”
“Indifference is a prime reason for lots of hate crimes and assaults,” says Gainer. “It’s very important that everyone looks at themselves and sees how they’re indifferent, and sees how sometimes they’re not comfortable in their own identity yet. In a world on indifference, you must really take pride in your identity.”
“I think [the play will] just speak to whoever comes,” says Ventura. “We are the next generation. We are the future, showing you what we know. We’re trying to say that we’re not going to make the generation’s work before us go in vain. Watching this play about hate crimes will just open your mind more about how you should act, and what you should do if a hate crime happens in your community.”
The Laramie Project plays April 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. and April 13 at 2 p.m. at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, 3500 R St. NW. Tickets are $10 to $35. A panel, “Owned It! What’s Your Story? Addressing LGBTQIA+ Issues in the Current Climate,” featuring WUSA’s Larry Miller, Bishop Gene Robinson, and The Victory Institute’s Reggie Greer, follows the Saturday performance. Visit www.ellingtonschool.org/box-office.