In order to tell this story, to tell it correct, as Father Rodger would say I must rewind.
I was first introduced to The Laramie Project in high school. I read this play before “coming out of the closet”, well before I ever even realized I was in the closet. I remember being struck by the style of the play, the diversity of the characters, and the extreme tragedy. It was a play that once entering into my life found a place nestled in my heart. I carried around The Laramie Project tucked away there for almost the next seven years. It was January 1st 2014 when the play consciously entered mind again. I was moving my partner from Georgia to Oregon, where I had been in graduate school for the last couple of months. The night before was New Years, and we had spent evening in Denver, Colorado. We were both so exhausted from 13 hours of driving that day that the only thing we had energy to do was set an alarm for midnight so we could wake up, kiss each other, and immediately fall back asleep. Around 5am I clicked on the TV to check the weather. Every single station was reporting a winter storm headed right our way. I woke T up and said we’ve got to go now or we are going to get snowed in. After rounding up the two dogs, and taking way too many muffins from the free breakfast bar, we fired up car and were on our way. Now, throughout the road trip we were stopping at every state-line to take goofy photos with each other and our dogs to document our first road trip together. Right as we were about to cross the Wyoming border it began to snow.
We quickly took our photos, and jumped back in the truck. However, the snow kept falling harder, and harder, until it became strikingly clear that we didn’t avoid the storm, we had landed ourselves right in the midst of it. After spinning out more than once on the freeway while semi-triucks whizzed past us, we agreed that we had to stop at the next town. Driving at literal snail pace, I keep my eyes peeled for the next sign indicating any civilization, as T attempted to keep us out of danger. A few miles later, and what felt like an eternity in the midst of anxiety, I saw a green sign. “Finally”, I thought. As we got closer I read the nearest town…. LARAMIE… “oh shit”.
The next town after Laramie was quite some distance away and required driving through a narrow windy passage, called Elk Mountain, that we knew the truck could not navigate given the circumstances. Never in a million years did I ever plan to go to Laramie, but as fate would have it that is exactly where I ended up snowed into for three days.
What can I say about Laramie? Well, to me it felt like a ghost town, but I know that was my own bias. Because in truth, Laramie could have been any small town in the United States. Everyone seemed to know everyone. People were plowing and shoveling the snow out of each others store fronts, and within maybe only 2 hours all the sidewalks of Laramie were more or less clear due to a combined community effort. And, I think its important to note that this process, and communal responsibility to each other seemed simply the way of life there. I am not meaning to paint Laramie as some utopic place, its not. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable just navigating space as clearly read queer couple than I did in Laramie. However, it wasn’t the completely one dimensional terrible place that quite honestly I wanted to paint it as in my head. Matthew was never far from my thoughts that weekend. His story played in my mind on repeat. As I wandered the streets of Laramie with T, I couldn’t help but think if Matthew’s feet had ever occupied that same space. Were my footsteps inside his?
It was maybe only a week after we settled into our new apartment that I got involved with the local community theater in Albany by total chance. On my way to work I happen to glance at the marquee listing auditions for The Glass Menagerie, one of my favorite plays, the next night. Laura, was one of my bucket list roles, and I thought I may never have the opportunity again to audition. Much to my surprise, I got cast without knowing a single person at ACT (this was not my experience with community theater prior). It was closing weekend of The Glass Menagerie that I found out the ACT would be producing The Laramie Project. I knew I had to be in it.
I waited and waited months for auditions. I read the script over and over. I even fell asleep to the HBO version of the show nightly during the week of auditions. My heart was set on playing Romaine Patterson (a 21 year old lesbian, best friend of Matthew, and creator of Angel Action), but honestly was going for ANY role. I just wanted to be apart of the show, I felt I needed to be.
I got cast as Kelli Simpkins who plays the following roles
Leigh Fondakowski: Member of the Tectonic Theater Project
Aaron Kreifels: 19 year old college student that finds Matthew at the fence
Alison Mears: Volunteer for social service agency and good friend of Marge Murray in her 50s
Tiffany Edwards: A local reporter in her 20s
Zackie Salmon: A 40 year old lesbian administrator at the University of Wyoming
Shannon: Friend of Aaron Mckinney, early 20s
Being cast in The Laramie Project is a unique experience, and not just because everyone is playing multiple roles, but rather because this play isn’t just based off a real story… it is a real story. Every character is a real person, every line verbatim their words. The upside to this style is that you truly get a snapshot of who these people are through the words that they chose, and they way they react to questions, events, and other people. The downside, is that these are REAL people, and with that comes the heavy responsibility to portray them correctly. Finding the voice, the way they stand, the way they sit, and the way they move about space were all things that helped develop and distinguish each role from itself. It was not an easy process by any means, but I am extremely proud of the 52 people we brought to life each night on stage. The true beauty of The Laramie Project is the breadth of people/perspectives portrayed. It is impossible to go to this play, and not find someone on stage that relates to an opinion or sentiment you have have. Everyone will find themselves in Laramie, that is the point. Because in truth, this tragedy could happen anywhere, and actually it still does.
Of all the roles I portrayed on stage there were two that proved to be particularly challenging not just as an actor, but also as a queer identified person.
The first was Aaron Kreifels, the boy that found Matthew at the fence. This was the first time I’ve ever been cast as boy. Portraying a gender other than the one identify with, and have been socialized into, was extremely difficult. Feminist and queer theories of gender I had studied in class sudden were brought into flesh. Every time I tried to put Aaron on I felt gender codes reverberate through my body. There was not a single second when I played Aaron that I wasn’t completely conscious about gender…
Is my voice deep enough?
are my feet spaced an appropriate distance from each other?
are my toes pointed forward? am I standing in a ballet position again? dammit!
is the weight of my body on the back of my heels?
am I moving my hands too little?
am I moving my hands to much?
am I pushing my hip to the side?
is my back hunched over?
I mean this was a continuous internal dialogue that started the moment I put Aaron’s flannel shirt on and continued until the second I took it off. Portraying Aaron made me realize just how difficult it would be to navigate space on a daily basis as either
a) a gender I don’t internally feel myself to be
b) a gender other than the one society has socialized/categorized me into
I didn’t know the codes for “acting like a man” and I found it emotionally exhausting to constantly be told Iwas do ing it wrong, or so. As a nontrans femme I had never had my gender presentation so overtly policed, which I have now come to realize is an immense privilege. Being told you are doing gender wrong is very emotionally taxing. At times it made me feel disconnected from my own skin, as if I couldn’t control the way people perceived me. Suddenly the reality of violent gender roles/norms became crystal clear.
Why can’t a person that identifies as man stand in ballet positions?
Why can’t a woman sit with her legs spaced apart?
Why do we have these ridiculous rules?
Some might argue that these social queues help us be recognizable to other people, but I think they function exactly the opposite. Instead of getting to know someone, we are automatically coding who they are based off the way they stand, move, talk, dress, etc. Why? Why does it matter? I want to live in a world where a man can stand in ballet positions and his gender is not questioned because of that. I want that world.
The second role I found most challenging was Romaine Patterson. Actually being Romaine was not a challenge at all, but rather the interactions she faces in the play were the challenge. In truth, I didn’t do any sort of acting with Romaine, I played her as myself because in a lot of ways I think our spirit is the same. She is a spunky 21 year old queer woman who at time of Matthew’s murder is not only coming into her own skin, but also into her own politics while in the wake of dealing with an immense tragedy. That was very much my story at that same age.
The difficulty of facing Fred Phelps every single night was a challenge I expected but still raddled me in each show . Myself, as well as the person who played Fred Phelps, felt an intense responsibility to tell this portion of the story right, to do it justice, because Fred Phelps, and people like him, are a reality. That degree of hate is a monster that cannot be kept in the shadows. It has to be revealed so that it can be faced and ultimately dismantled.
As I stood dead center below those posters each night, and felt the booming voice of hate shower down on me I almost always forgot my following lines.
At set strike I had the immense pleasure of finally queering up those awful posters with my cast mates. We attacked those words of hate in a true queer fashion, with glitter and fierce stomps. I won’t lie, it was pretty cathartic.
I think one of the most underrated characters in The Laramie Project is Zubaida Ula, a Muslim woman and Laramie resident in her 20s. I think this character really drives home the message that The Laramie Project is not just about the brutal murder of a gay man, but really about how Americans reacts to any sort of difference. At its core, this play is ethnography about the ways in which people perceive and police bodies that deviate from a social norm. In the moment “A Scarf” Zubaida briefly touches on the experience of wearing a head-covering, and that its, “really changed my life in Laramie”. Zubaida represents one (and perhaps only) character of color in The Laramie Project, and the only religious person outside of various sectors of Christianity. These two identify markers cast her as an outsider in a manner that is not much different from the way that Matthew was cast.
I also think this character is of particular important for current audiences (especially the many queer folk this play tends to attract). Zubaida is a call to reflect not just on status of queer people in this country, but also people of other marginalized identities. It is important to note that many of gains in LGBTQ rights have happened as the rights of immigrants, and people of color in this country have been stripped away. As, Mia McKenzie notes on her blog
“Two days ago, the Supreme Court repealed the segment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that functioned to guarantee that communities of color have equal access to voting rights as white communities. On the same day, the court dealt a blow to the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law intended to keep Native American children from being taken from their homes and typically adopted or fostered by non-Native American parents. Yesterday, that same Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, clearing the way for LGBT couples to access marriage rights,”
Furthermore, within the last few years more and more LGBTQ couples are able to adopt children both domestically and internationally, while the children of undocumented individuals, Black folks, and Native Americans are being forcibly stripped from their families. We cannot become so entrenched on the rights of one particular identity that we forget systems of oppression are interlocked just as our intersecting identities are.
Zubaida’s character in conjunction with the murder of FIVE trans women of color in the United States and THREE Muslim students murdered at the University of North Carolina during our rehearsal process, made me truly realize the differential attention that certain bodies get in media, and how this is so often connected to race, religion, and ethnicity. Why did Matthew’s murder strike a cord with the entire world, while many people don’t even know the names of these eight individuals????
Deah Shaddy Barakat
Yazmin Vash Payne
Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha
I keep wondering what would a play look like if we went to the town where any of these individuals were murdered and spent two years collecting interviews about their life, their murder, and community sentiment. What would people say? Would anyone remember them? Would anyone be outraged? What stories or opinions would come to light? Would anyone come see the play?
*Production photos by Eric LeFeber and Gary Burns*