A former resident of Laramie, Wyo., who relocated to La Center is one of the strongest voices in “The Laramie Project.”
Zubaida Ula remembers thinking it “silly and ignorant” as her fellow residents loudly protested that Laramie “isn’t that kind of town,” she said last week.
“It is that kind of town. If this wasn’t this kind of town, why did this happen here? … It’s just totally circular logic,” the Zubaida Ula of two decades ago says in the play. “These are people trying to distance themselves from this crime. And we need to own this crime. … We are like this. We are like this.”
Growing up in Laramie as the dark-skinned child of Muslim parents from Bangladesh was a study in contrasts, Ula said. “I always had friends, but I always got made fun of. I felt kind of alone in not being white. It’s a very homogenous place.”
When Ula got more serious about her faith and started wearing a headscarf, her life in Laramie got more complicated. “Suddenly people didn’t think I spoke English,” she said, and it was harder to make new friends.
The violent murder of Matthew Shepard “was shocking, of course, but I didn’t feel any surprise that a gay person would be singled out this way,” she said. More jarring to her was people’s denial, she said — denial so firm, it seemed there was nobody left in town with whom she could share her different perspective.
“I wanted to say, ‘Why are we acting all outraged and shocked that this kind of hatred has bubbled up?’ ” she recalled.
The first time she felt deeply and carefully listened to, she said, was during an interview with a visiting member of the Tectonic Theater Project who was gathering material for what became “The Laramie Project.”
“It was really profound for me to be able to pour it all out for him,” she said.
It’s been a profound, sad and strange part of her life story ever since, she added. Ula was flown to New York City for the premiere of the play, which was “exciting and glamorous” — and yet, taking any pleasure in the aftermath of a murder has always seemed wrong, she said. Ula has viewed many productions since then, she said, “and it’s always upsetting.”
Last year, Ula was asked to speak to students who were rehearsing a production of “The Laramie Project” at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.
“I always talk about how this play is so good because it turns the lens on everybody who was around Matthew. It’s about the larger picture of this town. It shows how the town reacts, but I think it also shows how something like this can happen to begin with,” she said. “It shows the culture and atmosphere that breeds this kind of violence.
“I never thought about pop culture being so important, but a play or a movie can make it so visceral. I’m 42 now, I was around 22 then. It’s amazing to see the play goes on and people are still talking about it,” she said.
Today, Ula holds down two jobs; she’s a real estate agent and the downtown Portland program coordinator at Operation Nighwatch, a homeless services center.
“I was already majoring in social work when Matthew Shepard was murdered,” she wrote in an email. “His murder made me much more aware of oppression of LGBT+ people, and how our everyday attitudes create an atmosphere of violence against them.”