"The Laramie Project" brings lessons for students, audience at Rolling Meadows HS
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Some plays try to make audiences laugh, others try to make them cry, but the students and director behind the upcoming performances of "The Laramie Project" at Rolling Meadows High School say they hope to make audiences think.
The play draws on hundreds of interviews and news reports to tell the story of the fatal beating of a 21-year-old gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard in 1998.
October marked the 15th anniversary of Shepard's death, which is one of the reasons the school took on the play, said set designer Paul Dombrowski.
"This is still a controversial issue because the victim happened to be gay," said Dombrowski, an art teacher in Palatine Elementary District 15. "He could have been Muslim, Jewish or anything else. Hate is hate.
"With marriage equality passing in Illinois we thought it was a timely topic, but it's always going to be timely unfortunately," he added.
Dombrowski, who is openly gay, was the victim of a hate crime earlier this year. He left school one day to find a note on his car saying that people like him should not be allowed to be around children or be teachers. He said his school rallied around him and Palatine police are investigating it as a felony hate crime, a distinction that did not exist when Shepard was attacked. President Barack Obama signed hate crimes legislation called The Matthew Shepard Act in October 2009.
As the students perform — many of them taking on multiple roles to recount the impact Shepard's death had on the Laramie community — a slideshow of news footage from the case will play in the background.
Students say they were shocked to read about the details of Shepard's death.
"I was astounded at how brutal it was," said junior Kelly Golbeck. "It's not something that's OK, it's not something to be quiet about."
Students equated the struggle for LGBT rights to the Civil Rights Movement before they were born.
"We need to teach people that this happened and it still happens," said junior Madison Gliosci.
Dombrowski said while younger generations don't seem to have as many issues with acceptance, that doesn't mean everything is solved.
"We still need to have the conversation," he said. "It's a show about compassion, it's a show about acceptance."
For freshman Ben McKinney, "The Laramie Project," has been more than a play.
"As a gay teenager, it's really important," he said.
McKinney talked about his own coming out process, where he tried to figure out if there was something wrong with him for being gay. He said joining the cast gave him a place to fit in and a new family of sorts in the school's theater community.
"People weren't made to be exactly the same. How boring would that be," McKinney said. "Being in this play has come with a lot of awakenings personally. You have to accept yourself before you can accept anyone else."
Although "The Laramie Project" has been performed for more than a decade at community theaters, colleges and high schools across the country, it is often still the subject of controversy.
Members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church threatened to picket a performance at Buffalo Grove High School in 2010, but the protesters did not materialize.
In July, administrators at Ottumwa High School in Iowa wouldn't allow the play, so students and the drama teacher put on the performance at the city's performing arts center. Just last month there were threats of protest against a showing at Granite Bay High School in California.
Officials said Rolling Meadows has not received any complaints about the play and that the administration has been supportive.
"The Laramie Project" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Rolling Meadows High School, 2901 Central Road. Tickets cost $5 and can be purchased at the door.
Immediately after the Friday and Saturday performances, the cast will be joined by Susan Burk, a Laramie Project Specialist from the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Burk was a journalist at a television station in Wyoming at the time of the murder. Burk and the cast will host a post-show conversation with the audience.
The play is also special for students because retired theater teacher Tim McCrory came back to direct it. McCrory retired in June after 28 years with teaching English, acting and theater in Northwest Suburban High School District 214.
"We aren't just challenging people to think about how they think about gay people," McCrory said. "We're challenging them to think about how they think."
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