The Laramie Project at Ole Miss: Homophobia and the Theater Requirement

Scene from the University of Mississippi production of The Laramie Project that was heckled with anti-gay slurs.

Matthew ShepardAt least 20 freshman members of the University of Mississippi football team heckled and used homophobic slurs during a performance they were required to attend of an on-campus production of The Laramie Project, the play by the Techtonic Theater Company exploring the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard. This was first reported by the college newspaper.

“Using hate-filled words to interrupt a play about anti-gay hate is a sad irony,” Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard responded, “that only reminds me of the work we at the Matthew Shepard Foundation and each of us as individuals must undertake to help stop hate.”

There is great sadness in realizing that these students were three years old when Matthew Shepard was killed,  on October 12, 1998, but what’s most intriguing has been the response.

“While we work to determine with certainty who disrupted the Laramie Project play, we want everyone within our university community and beyond to know that we strongly condemn the behavior exhibited Tuesday night,” began an “open letter” signed by the chancellor and the athletic director of the University of Mississippi.

“Mississippi needs to take action now to send a strong message that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated,” wrote  Fox Sports columnist Greg Couch, calling for the students to be suspended from playing. “…the first way to teach an athlete something is to take him off the field. For once, let’s put something ahead of football.”

Even the comments on the article in sports website SB Nation reveal a nation that is changing, albeit not fast enough, such as this exchange:

“I don’t know many who haven’t said those slurs.”

“I’ve said many things I regret. Fortunately I was able to learn my lessons without the media. I understand the scrutiny… They do need to learn their lesson. We all do.”

“I’m pretty sure I have, when I was 9, in 1990, to friends, making terrible jokes. Not to people on stage during a play specifically about homophobia.”

“Well, 20 bad apples have now ruined it for everyone. Once the major media outlets get wind of this, you won’t even be able to wear an Ole Miss shirt anymore, for fear of being labeled guilty by association. I was so looking forward to attending the Auburn game this weekend.”

Interesting how you make this about you. The actors were disrespected and insulted. The legacy of a murdered young man has been maligned and [you’re] sad cause you cant wear your tshirt.”

It’s also frankly interesting that there is a theater requirement in universities such as University of Mississippi. One wonders, though, whether this humanities requirement is helping to bring out these students’ humanity.

Message of support from the entire Broadway cast of Big Fish to the cast of THe Laramie Project at the University of Mississippi.

New column by by sports writer Greg Couch points out that the University of Mississippi has declined to punish any individual football players, claiming it was too dark in the theater to identify any of them — a contention that the actors refute. But that’s ok with them.  “We don’t want to punish the football team,” said actress Jade Genga. “We want to fight hate with love.” She quotes a line from the play: “Now, it’s time to begin the healing process, and good coming from evil.’’

October 12th marks the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company have launched The Laramie Project Reflections, an online forum. Deadline to contribute is October 11.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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