Two weeks ago, a news story lit up my RSS and Twitter feeds. A college production of The Laramie Project at the University of Mississippi–better known as Ole Miss–was disrupted by homophobic shouts from football players in the audience.
For me, this was a play that seemed dated in its activists tendencies. The play has even seen a celebrity TV version on HBO–a sure sign for any activist cause that the last vestiges of controversy had been stripped out of an artwork and remade for mass consumption. This is a play we teach in our theatre history classes to explore the sociopolitical climate of the 1990s and early 2000s. There has even been a revisiting of the source material, when the Tectonic Theatre Company went back to Laramie ten years later. The original play was stuck in its activism of the identity politics era, so even the original theatre company needed to update it. But obviously, this view was the result of my location within the echo chamber of East Coast liberalism and the academic theatre. In fact, a play like this can still reveal much about communities in which it is performed. As was evidenced by the reaction at Ole Miss earlier this month.
Despite the way that the play is usually advertised as a play about the dangers of homophobia, it is actually much more complex look at a small town in the midst of the media circus surrounding the Matthew Shepard murder trials. This community view–and not the simplistic moral “don’t hate gay people”–is the lasting importance of The Laramie Project.
When I took part in a reading at my college over a decade ago, we were caught up in the liberal, feel-good project that this play afforded us on a mostly like-minded small liberal arts campus. Our play was not activist since we were performing for the choir, After the performance, everyone, actors and audience together, could share a good cathartic cry and feel good about ourselves that we had taken part in this piece of important political theatre.
The production at Ole Miss, however, seems to have brought renewed life to this play that I had dismissed as dated. The Laramie Project at Ole Miss brought up many stereotypes. Not just the stereotypes held by the disruptive audience members. Stereotypes that out-of-touch liberal East Coast elites hold about the South.
If a production of this play can provoke this kind of outburst from students at Ole Miss, then obviously the themes touched on in the play are not as outdated as I assumed. There are places in this country where this kind of play is still dangerous. Of course, you might say, this was Mississippi, we expect that the students would react negatively to this play. We should not fall into the trap of painting all students at Ole Miss with the same stereotype.
The coverage of the event is telling. The New York Times–that grey lady of stodgy East Coast elitism–made sure that its readers knew that Ole Miss was only forcibly integrated in 1962 and that racist protest against the President occurred there as late as 2012. These events seem unrelated to the homophobic disruption that occurred in the theatre–unless you want to make sure to paint the Southern university as a hotbed of anti-liberal hate speech. Is this context or merely replaying the stereotype of Southern backwardness that seems so prevalent up North? But we must remember that the students on stage were also Ole Miss students.
On the other end of the reporting spectrum, ESPN.com wanted to make sure that its readers knew that the school couldn’t verify if student-athletes were responsible for yelling slurs during the show. Is this just another way to make sure that student-athletes aren’t held to account for their actions on campuses that devote most of their resources to football? Or am I merely stereotyping the school’s treatment of its athletes?
In the end, one of the actors, Garrison Gibbons, wrote a moving and very public statement about the incident.
It would be easy to characterize what happened last week as the fault of just 20 to 30 football team members, but that would be unfair. This wasn’t a football team against a theater department. There were others in attendance that responded in kind. Let us instead use last week’s as reminder of why we chose this show and why it–and shows like it–are important.
As instructors, it is also important for us to remember that these football players were required to attend the production as part of their Intro to Theatre course. Making your students attend the school productions seems to be a near-universal assignment for Intro theatre courses, it is one that I know I have used in my Intro Acting courses. Could the instructors teaching these courses have better prepared their classes for this event? I wouldn’t have thought that I needed to spend class time instructing my students not to shout homophobic slurs at performers. So maybe that “we’re past this” mentality contributed to the problem. If we don’t talk about it in our classes, that doesn’t mean these problems don’t exist.
As Gibbons reminds us, this thirteen-year-old play can still be used as a tool to foster discussion, if we are willing to use it as a medium for discussion rather than merely a means to preach to the choir or to blame our detractors.