Friday, November 13, 2009

Springfield Spared from Hate; “Laramie” A Devastating Reflection

[This image, posted by Twitter blogger @inkedgiff, shows the counter-protest at the Hoogland Center for the Arts]

About 300 people from Springfield and surrounding areas came to the doorstep of the Hoogland Center for the Arts Friday for what they anticipated would be an intense evening protest. The Springfield Police Department thought the same, and brought at least five officers for crowd control and a paddywagon in case things got dicey.

All were awaiting the arrival of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an anti-gay hate group based in Topeka Kansas, founded by Fred Phelps, a disbarred lawyer who once campaigned to be governor of that state. The church operates the web site, and protested t numerous funerals of American soldiers, because, according to the Web site, the soldiers “voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country.”

Inside the Hoogland, the Springfield Theater Centre production of “The Laramie Project,” was beginning its final weekend. The play retraces the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, who was savagely beaten and left for dead at the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay. After the 21-year old college student succumbed to his injuries and the trial of his killers began, the WBC gained national notoriety for picketed the highly-publicized trial. And now, more than a decade later, they protest the production that revisits Shepard’s death.

Among the WBC’s many targets included an Albany, New York high school that held “Laramie,” and a college at Basingstoke, Hampshire, in the United Kingdom who also held a “Laramie” production.

[Springfield blogger and tweeter @bishoponair took this photo from across the Hoogland center]

On both sides of sixth street, the would-be counter protesters held signs that read “FREE,” and “God Loves Fags.” One young man held a cardboard sign that had the word “Fag” inside a pink heart. There were two American flags and at least one rainbow flag. Bypassing cars honked in solidarity, and the crowd responded with cheers and hollers. A woman took signatures on a petition for equal marriage rights.

Anticipation for WBC’s arrival was building since at least “Laramie’s” premier the week before. Tuesday, Nov. 10, local radio personality Jim Leach, an STC board member, sparred with Shirley Phelps-Roper, a WBC leader.

I would absolutely gag if anyone in this nation turns from their rebellion because the time for your destruction is IMMINENT! It’s not going to happen. Christ said it’s going to look like Sodom when I come back, Phelps-Roper said.

Can you narrow that down a little bit when you say 'Imminent'? Because it's been imminent for a lot of years with you people and I was just wondering if you can narrow it down?

Leach's guest then repeatedly shouted
No, insisting her church has only been insisting imminence for a couple of months.

You've been telling us it's been imminent for a long time, Leach said, to which Phelps-Roper shouts "WRONG, and calling Leach a liar before explaining that she had to learn to speak and spell the word just recently.

The church never did show up in Springfield. At about 8 p.m., the paddywagon left Hoogland, and the counter-protesters went their separate ways.

Some of the Twitter chatter that evening:

“The Laramie Project,” which opened Nov. 6, gives an impression of the town that wasn’t broadcast in 1998. Instead, it is an account of Tectonic Theater Project members who visited Laramie six times over a year and a half and collected interviews and insights from the townspeople.

The resulting production is a stark juxtaposition between the serenity of the landscape and the depth of human brutality. It is carried out by 21 cast members who take turns playing 40 different Wyomingites, each having a unique identity, but each indivisible from the landscape of Laramie. The sheer number of characters would be confounding, if it weren’t that each of them exemplify

There are the playful busybodies Alison Mears and Marge Murray, who speak their minds and have plenty to say about the social structure of Laramie. There’s the town’s sergeant, who insists it’s a good place to live. In a town like Laramie, as one townie says to the theater project, everyone is pretty much once-removed. Everyone is a part of the great, blue sky, endless earth, and all stand in funeral-like silence as the accused are lead to the courtroom.

That’s not to say “The Laramie Project” shirks its journalistic pretense and flinches when hate is uncovered. There are cold truths when one of the murderers, Aaron McKinney, explains how he beat Shepard with a pistol, or when townspeople say murder is wrong, and in the next breath admit reservations about gay people. Hate just doesn’t bloom under Laramie’s insular clique, it is trucked into town in cable news vans, threatening emails and agenda-driven preachers.

But there also are moments where light floods in, where Laramie grieves and rallies and protests around the part of them that they lost. The only rule here, it seems, is what the town’s catholic Father warns the theater company: “Just say it right. I think you have a responsibility to do that.”

For those who are unprepared, it is a devastating experience. There are moments when testimony drops jaws and sucks the air from the room, if to be re-inflated and crushed when the humanity of Laramie is revealed.

1 comment:

Springfield.Branch said...

Wow. As a cast member of The Laramie Project, thank you for standing on the side of love.