In October 1998, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming was beaten and left tied to a fence to die, the victim of an anti-gay bias crime. Fifteen years later, students at the Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter day school in West Orange, New Jersey, presented The Laramie Project as their fall play. Written by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project portrays the people of Laramie, Wyoming, as they react to Matthew Shepard’s death and the trials of the perpetrators and consider how to move on from these events. In the 14 years since its premiere, the play has become one of the most performed works of theatre in the United States; it’s estimated that 50 million people have seen a stage production or the film version.
So what moved a Jewish high school to put on the play – in fact, to be the first Conservative Jewish school in the country to produce The Laramie Project?
“In the past year and half or so our school has taken great strides in becoming a more open and welcoming environment,” said Jordan Herskowitz, Golda Och Academy’s director of student life and co-director of the play. “That began when our high school students started a Gay-Straight Alliance. Considering that the GSA was received in such a positive light and that our students wanted to take an active role in the awareness and acceptance of others, it seemed like a good time to put on The Laramie Project.”
The play was written after hundreds of hours of interviews with the citizens of Laramie, whose words form the script. The Golda Och students portrayed ranchers, police officers, clergy, and parents and friends of Matthew Shepard – even members of the far-right Westboro Baptist Church, who came to the funeral to express their anti-gay beliefs. The thing that struck Herskowitz, though, was that “it really read like a murder mystery to the kids – they didn’t know how it ended. They knew he died, but not the specifics.”
After each sold-out performance, audience members participated in a talk-back to discuss what they had just seen. Members of the cast and crew, school alumni, and community professionals (including rabbis and teachers) joined in these discussions. Herskowitz said the show “started great conversations with our students and families and communities about the difference between tolerance and acceptance of others, and about how it affects us in northern New Jersey.”
After seeing the play, C. J. Price, director of North Jersey Pride, wrote in her blog, “This play was performed by high school teenagers. Kids who, judging from the wonderful panel discussion that took place post-production, clearly believe in its message, who see their responsibility to promote not just tepid tolerance, but genuine, heart-felt acceptance, love and dignity for all people. Raised and educated within institutionalized religion, they believe that delivering this message is part of tikkun olam, the repair of the world.”
Golda Och’s performing arts season also included a production of In the Heights – the story of a Dominican-American community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. In discussing the year’s programming choices, Herskowitz said, “I think the biggest thing is that both shows talk about community and the importance of community and people that stand up for each other no matter who they are.”
In The Laramie Project, a police sergeant says, “How could this happen? I – I think a lot of people just don’t understand, and even I don’t really understand, how someone can do something like that.” The goal of the production at Golda Och Academy was to help understand, to promote acceptance and to speak out. The plan, says Herskowitz, is to continue “focusing the students on their awareness of people’s differences.”