Protesters target Camas High production of ‘The Laramie Project’

Play explores fatal beating of gay college student Matthew Shepard

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

Published:

 

A group of protesters waved religious signs and yelled into a megaphone outside Camas High School on Tuesday afternoon in opposition to the theater department’s production of “The Laramie Project.”

The 2000 play written by Moisés Kaufman covers the aftermath of the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was targeted because he was gay, and the murder trial that followed. The show pieces together more than 200 interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyo., and others close to the murder.

There were three individuals across the street from the Camas High School bus parking area as students were leaving for the day, according to a letter sent home by the district to Camas High School families.

The protesters held up signs with messages like “Come to the Lord Jesus,” “Time is running out. Repent or perish” and “Repent (turn from your sin — to Jesus).”

“This event created a commotion and, unfortunately, some strong feelings and expletives were expressed,” the letter read. “The (high school) security team, administrators and the school resource officer were on site ensuring the visitors stayed on the public sidewalk away from students. The visitors left after the (high school) students departed.”

The district also sent a letter to Lacamas Heights Elementary School families, as some students were outside for recess while the protest was going on.

Learning opportunity

The theater department put on performances of the show Nov. 3 and 4 without incident. Sean Kelly, director of the show and the school’s drama department, said it’s the first time in his seven years with the school a production has received this kind of response.

Kelly wasn’t at school Tuesday, as he was recovering at home from a medical procedure, and said he first heard about the protest from a student in the show.

“The school took care of the protesters and the kids counter-protested with class,” Kelly said. “Part of what we’ve been talking about through the course of the play is about discussion. This is not about arguing with people. It’s about saying, ‘Who are we? What can we do about this?’ The kids are aware of the power of their own speech right now.”

At one point during the protest, a group of students went outside and sang “Amazing Grace,” which is similar to a scene from the show where a group sings the song to drown out protests from the Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka, Kan.-based hate group, as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That was not the only similarity between the protest Tuesday in Camas and the play itself, Kelly said. He cited a character in the show, Zubaida Ula, who says that first step to combating hate is to acknowledge that it exists. Kelly said while the instinct might be for people to say that Camas or Laramie aren’t those kind of cities, that doesn’t move the discussion forward.

On Twitter, Kelly responded to some of his students’ tweets with the message: “#WeAreLikeThis.” He said students in the show will understand the meaning.

“This is a reflection of things that are going on in our world,” Kelly said. “Empathy is a skill that must be practiced. The only way to practice is to listen to others.”

Kelly said he knew this was a possibility when he picked the show, and he told that to school administrators, who backed his decision to produce it.

“This is nothing new,” he said. “This is unfortunately part of producing this show, that people will get up and they will protest and spread hate speech.”

More shows set

Kelly said he’ll meet with students today to talk about what happened, and talk to school officials to determine if they want to add any precautions for upcoming shows.

He praised students’ response, and noted that the students were out of harm’s way, other than having to listen to hate speech.

Students took to Twitter to express disappointment in the protesters, as well as mock them. One student wanted to get a counter-protest going of with same-sex couples kissing in front of the protesters.

Others used the protest to plug upcoming performances. Shows are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday at Camas High School, 26900 S.E. 15th St., Camas. More information about the show, including links for tickets, can be found at www.facebook.com/CamasTheatre.

Power of speech

Kelly said the protesters only showed the need to still perform the show and for others to take in its message that speech carries power.

“When folks show up at our school and start shouting speech like that at children, we’re starting to see that folks do not understand the power of their own speech,” he said. “In spite of the fact that they might call themselves Christians, they don’t sound Christ-like, by my understanding.”