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CHOCO
Nov 9th, 2002, 11:31 PM
Art, life merge for school doing 'Laramie'
Saturday, November 9, 2002 Posted: 12:30 PM EST (1730 GMT)




NEWARK, California (AP) -- Sara deMelo stands on her high school stage, bathed by a spotlight's cold glow. She is delivering the monologue of a cyclist who found battered gay college student Matthew Shepard tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming.

"I-I just thought it was a scarecrow," she says, her voice trembling as she nears the end of the speech. "But when I saw hair, well, I knew it was a human being."

Her part in "The Laramie Project," the groundbreaking drama based on the Shepard case, is much more than a role.

Earlier this month, deMelo and her fellow players at Newark Memorial High School were caught in a haunting coalescence of art and life when a teen from their own small suburb was beaten and strangled, allegedly by three men who were angry that the beautiful blonde they knew as "Lida" was biologically male.

"It's like life imitating art imitating life," deMelo says. "It made everything just real."

"The Laramie Project" is an account of the reactions in Laramie, Wyoming, to the murder of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student. Shepard, who was gay, died October 12, 1998, after he was lured from a bar, kidnapped, tied to a fence and beaten with the butt of a gun. Two men are serving life in prison for the murder.

The script comes from more than 200 interviews playwright Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, Inc., conducted in Laramie. The words are presented verbatim, capturing the raw immediacy of the tragedy.

* * * * *

"We've become Waco, we've become Jasper. We're a noun, a definition, a sign."

-- "The Laramie Project"

* * * * *

Last spring, when the drama department at Newark Memorial decided to perform the play, tragedy wasn't a word easily associated with Newark, a bustling city of about 43,000 on the southeast edge of San Francisco Bay.

Still, trouble wasn't unknown here. Drama teacher Barbara Williams proposed doing the play, prompted by an incident a few years ago in which one Newark Memorial student beat up another, who was gay. She took it personally; she had taught both. "I said this town needs it. We have to do this show."

In September, a newspaper article announced the coming performance. Within days, anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps, who taunted gays outside Shepard's funeral and thus became a character in "The Laramie Project," sent a fax announcing his followers would protest the play.


Some students were afraid; some thought it was "kind of cool," recalls cast member Kate Lyness.

None considered switching to a safer topic.

"Never," says Williams.

Rehearsals began. Then, in early October, a rumor started going around. Eddie Araujo, who went to another Newark high school but was friends with a cast member, was missing. Araujo, who liked to call himself "Gwen" or "Lida," had last been seen at a party in Newark, dressed in a miniskirt.

On October 16, police said they had found a body in a shallow grave in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 150 miles east of Newark.

The next day, the news was out. Three men -- one 19, two 22, all of whom attended Newark Memorial -- were in jail, charged with murdering Araujo on October 3.

Most of the cast went to Araujo's funeral, listening as the dead teen's family spoke with an unrehearsed poignance that echoed the uncensored emotion of "The Laramie Project."

"The night of the funeral -- I think that's when everything hit me," says deMelo, who saw her gay cousin there. "When this first happened, he was the first person I thought of. I was, you know -- 'That could be him.' And then, when I saw him, I totally broke down."

* * * * *

"There was nothing I could do. I mean, if there was anything ... I would've done it but there was nothing."

-- "The Laramie Project"

* * * * *

Like Laramie, the day the Araujo story broke, reporters swooped into Newark.

There are other reminders of the link between the plains city of Laramie and the mini-malled suburb of Newark.

"Every day I hear a line from the show," says cast member Joe Magdalena.

One came from a family member who wondered aloud if Araujo had somehow been asking for trouble, partying as a girl. Maybe, he theorized, it was a 50-50 thing.

In the play, a Laramie resident talks about a defendant's claim that Shepard made a sexual advance, rationalizing, "You know, maybe it's 50-50."

"I pulled out the play and I showed him that line," says Magdalena. "I said, 'This is not one of the good lines of the play.' And he apologized."

Every day I hear a line from the show.
-- Newark high school student Joe Magdalena


Characters in "The Laramie Project" frequently struggle to explain the unexplainable. In Newark, student actors at least have a script to go by.

"For the people in Laramie, it was more than a play. It was about a dialogue. And now for this community, again it has become a dialogue," says playwright Kaufman. "I think there is something kind of good about a play being able to play that role in a community. Theater has the power to do that."

"The Laramie Project" was cited by Time magazine as one of the 10 best plays of 2000. It opened in Denver to critical acclaim and was made into an HBO movie. Kaufman estimates there are about 350 productions this year just counting nonprofessional productions. He plans to attend one, the sold-out November 8 opening in Newark.

Seeing the play set against a backdrop of another killing is "so devastating," says Kaufman. "You think, 'How many more kids are going to have to die before all of this is over?"'

* * * * *

"What would he have become? How could he have changed his piece of the world to make it better?"

-- Dennis Shepard at the sentencing of one of his son's killers

* * * * *

In the Araujo case, police say the teen was killed after his biological identity was uncovered at a party at the home of one of the defendants. Police say Araujo, a slender 5 feet and 7 inches, was knocked to the ground by his alleged 6-feet-tall attackers, dragged semiconscious to the garage and strangled with a rope.

One defendant in the Araujo case has pleaded innocent.

Shepard was gay; Araujo has been referred to as "transgender," which does not mean gay but includes cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals and those born with the physical characteristics of both sexes.

For the students putting on "The Laramie Project," the last few weeks have been a blur. "I still think that once this is all over, we're going to be like, 'What just happened?' " says Kate Lyness.

Against the backdrop of the unfolding legal case, cast members have learned their lines, blocked their moves, practiced costume changes.

In an impressive bit of staging, students took $3 landscape timbers and lashed them together to make a buck-and-rail fence that stretches across the auditorium, just below the stage. Mundane yet menacing, the wooden structure looms at the edge of the audience's perspective.

It was at a fence like this where Shepard was pistol-whipped with a .357-magnum revolver and tied for 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures, begging for his life.

At a recent rehearsal, there were some mesmerizing moments despite businesslike interruptions of, "Further to the LEFT!" and "I can't HEAR you!"

Tears came readily.

One of deMelo's lines in the play comes from Laramie resident Marge Murray who wonders how "two absolutely human beings cause so much grief for so many people."

Is she thinking about Araujo's killers? "Oh, yeah." There's catharsis in her monologue as Aaron Kreifels, the cyclist who found Shepard.

"It's like he hadn't really dealt with it. He's almost totally reliving it and going through it again to just cope with it and let the emotions go through him. And that's what I find so great about it is that it's totally raw," she says.

"At this point," says deMelo, "there's so many emotions that go through us when we're on stage. It's added more feeling and more passion ... because we have the emotions and we have the feelings."

Rae Q.
Nov 10th, 2002, 08:57 AM
Another very interesting topic. Thank you so much Choco.

CHOCO
Nov 10th, 2002, 02:02 PM
Rae - thanks alot. The Mathew Shepard case is indeed a sad one. Through this project, perhaps more people can be sensitized about not hating and having more tolerance for others.