Standing at center stage before a nearly empty auditorium at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, 18-year-old Jarrett Nguyen took a quiet breath and began to speak the grief-stricken words of a mourning father.
“Matt officially died in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. He actually died on the outskirts of Laramie, tied to a fence. . . . Matt’s beating, hospitalization and funeral focused worldwide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil. People have said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Nguyen said, his voice quivering slightly. “I miss my son, but I am proud to be able to say that he is my son.”
These words were first spoken at a courtroom sentencing hearing by Dennis Shepard, the father of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was found tied to a split-rail fence in October 1998 in a remote area east of Laramie, Wyo. Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, had been brutally beaten. He died in a hospital several days later.
His death focused national attention on the intolerance that led to the savage act of violence and inspired members of the Tectonic Theater Project to conduct more than 200 interviews with residents of Laramie over the following year.
Their work culminated in “The Laramie Project,” a play that chronicles the effects of Shepard’s death on the people in the town.
More than a dozen years after Shepard’s death, 16 students at Broad Run High spent months preparing to present the play for the first time in Loudoun County. Their goal goes beyond presenting a compelling performance, they said: They hope the play will spark greater awareness of intolerance and open a dialogue in a school community where several cast members said they frequently hear anti-gay slurs targeted at students.
Alex Jongbloed, a 15-year-old freshman who plays Aaron McKinney, one of the two men convicted of murdering Shepard, said he was “astonished” when he first read the lines.
McKinney “really believed he was innocent, that what he did was right,” Jongbloed said. “I really hope that this play will call attention to the issue of harassment over sexuality. It’s huge here at Broad Run. You hear name-calling in the hallways.”
Timothy Willmot, theater director and drama teacher at Broad Run High, echoed the hope that the play might encourage people to talk more openly about issues of sexuality in a generally conservative county. He recalled the community’s response to a one-act play written by a student at Stone Bridge High School in 2005, about a football player who confides to a friend that he is gay.
“At the end of the act, the two men lean in toward each other and the lights go out,” he said. “There was all this fervor. It caused a bit of an uproar.”
Some politicians — including former state delegate Richard H. Black and former Loudoun County supervisor Mick Staton Jr. — e-mailed supporters decrying the play, and the school system received a barrage of e-mails from alarmed parents. The outcry resulted in the drafting of theater regulations for Loudoun County public school productions, although the effect of those rules on “The Laramie Project” has been limited to profanity. The language of the play has been toned down somewhat, Willmot said.
Willmot said he has seen the cast draw powerful connections between the play and current events, including the recent suicides of bullied gay teenagers and the picketing of military funerals by Westboro Baptist Church, which has stated its conviction that the deaths of service members are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.
The experience of capturing more than 60 unique voices — the voices of real people from Laramie, who expressed a wide range of reactions to Shepard’s death — was particularly intense, the students said.
Nguyen, who plays Dennis Shepard and a Baptist minister — a conservative preacher who openly disapproves of Matthew Shepard’s homosexuality — said that portraying voices “from two completely different sides of the spectrum” helped him grow not only as an actor but as a person seeking to understand the complexity of compassion and intolerance.
“I was only 6 when all this happened, but this hate really does still exist,” Nguyen said. “These things really do happen.”
Maggie Panetta, a 15-year-old sophomore, said the play reminded her of words that she had heard in lessons about the Holocaust. “We need to learn about this, so something like this never happens again,” she said. “That applies to this, too.”
Panetta said the prejudice and bullying in high school is often “under the surface,” where it’s not easily detected by teachers or parents.
“It’s small things. Like, ‘That’s so gay’ — people say that all the time,” she said.
Panetta said students often use anti-gay slurs.
“I hate that,” she said. “People don’t know the weight of their words.”
Mary Bobbitt, a 17-year-old senior, said the play is a powerful testament to what happens when people who are “different” are not met with acceptance. She said she hopes the play’s message will resonate not just with students but with everyone in Ashburn.
“I really want parents to see this,” she said. “I hope that parents can have these conversations with their kids.”
The Broad Run Spartan Theatre will present “The Laramie Project” at 7:30 p.m. June 2 to 4 and 2 p.m. June 5. Tickets are $8 and will be sold at the door. For information, call 571-252-2305.