Correction to This Article
A photo caption in earlier versions of this story, including in the print edition of The Washington Post, misidentified a student who played an angel. She is Taylor Goodson of Langley High School in McLean. This version has been corrected.

An education in hate hits the stage

Taylor Goodson plays one of the angels in Langley High School's production of
Taylor Goodson plays one of the angels in Langley High School's production of "The Laramie Project.'' (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward)
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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010

Brian Patterson auditioned for the latest theater production at Langley High School unsure of how he would be cast. This was no musical or comedy but an exploration of Matthew Shepard's brutal murder in Laramie, Wyo., an anti-gay hate crime that stunned the nation.

The 17-year-old ended up playing one of Shepard's killers. "It was difficult, and still is," Patterson says of his part. "I'm not friends with anyone who is remotely like this."

Still, Friday night Patterson and 22 other students are to take the stage at the high school in McLean for the opening of "The Laramie Project," a play that has been a nationwide phenomenon for a decade but that students say is particularly relevant now, in the aftermath of a spate of bullying incidents and suicides that have included gay teens.

"I hope that this changes some people's perspectives on gay rights and maybe opens their minds a little bit," says Lauren Stewart, 17, the student-director. "I think the way to progress on issues is to talk about them."

Stewart and other teens were especially troubled by the September death of a Rutgers University student who jumped off a bridge after a roommate allegedly filmed his gay sexual encounter on a webcam and tweeted about it.

"That was horrible, and I think the timing of ours is good because people have stopped talking about it and they need to start talking again," Stewart said.

The events in the play go back to 1998, when Shepard was driven to a remote area and robbed, tortured, beaten and tied to a fence by two men who met him in a bar. He was found 18 hours later barely breathing and later died.

The play is not a depiction of the 21-year-old Shepard's death but rather a series of monologues that tell the stories of those affected: friends, family, religious leaders, doctors, professors, police, protesters, the accused.

The lines are personal, directly quoting the words of real people, as taken from texts and 200 interviews done by the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York company that traveled to Laramie a month after the murder to document the impact on the town.

There is a Baptist minister who says he hopes Shepard was thinking of his lifestyle as he was tied to the fence. There is an emergency room doctor who treated Shepard and recounts her feelings about later learning she had also treated one of his attackers.

There is a young woman who grew up in the Muslim faith in Laramie and thinks the town and nation need to accept what the case has laid bare. "We are like this," she says.

Nicole Kang, 17, who plays that role, says already she sees more than the usual interest in the play from non-theater classmates. At home, Kang said, her father, "a stickler for tradition," read through her lines one night, and the two talked.

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