In Joe King's theater arts classroom at North Central High School, posters from past productions are lined up, one after another, on the walls below a high ceiling. The variety of productions is striking: North Central students have performed in everything from chestnuts like Blithe Spirit to an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's story collection, Welcome To the Monkey House. And, of course, there have been lots of musicals.
This weekend, starting on Thursday night, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. and running through Sunday evening, North Central students will tackle The Laramie Project, a work based on oral histories collected in Laramie, Wyoming, by members of the Tectonic Theater Project following the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. Over 200 townspeople were interviewed. These interviews became the basis for a play that does not dramatize Shepard's murder, but examines the effect this hate crime had on people in the community where it took place.
"The play is a reflection on how a town deals with such a vicious crime," said King, who has served as director of North Central's theater program since 1997. "I always look for stories I think are powerful; stories I care about, stories I think my students will care about."
Theater companies of all kinds have performed The Laramie Project since its debut in 2000. Along the way, the play has attracted the attention of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, where the Rev. Fred Phelps has made a mission of spreading an anti-homosexual message via a website called GodHatesFags.com.
When Phelps learned that North Central was about to stage The Laramie Project, he immediately called on his followers to picket North Central High School on Thursday from 2:55 to 3:30 p.m. "Matt Shepard has been in Hell more than 10 years, with eternity left on his sentence - no appeal, parole, or time off for good behavior," wrote Phelps. "Beside this solemn fact, all else about Matt is trivial and irrelevant. Amen." Phelps closed his call to action with this: "God Hates Indianapolis."
"There's a hullabaloo about the protest," said King, "but I tell the actors, 'Our job is to put on a play and to focus on the play and not worry about what's going to happen on 86th St. next Thursday.' They're dealing with it," King says of his cast, which includes over 30 student actors, whose job it is to take on 73 speaking parts. "They realize they're part of something that's special and challenging and difficult. They're really stepping up and rising to the occasion."
King says the same is true of North Central's administration, lead by principal C.E. Quandt and the larger Washington Township community. "I talked with my principal and he read the script," said King. "He was familiar with the story, so read the script and told me to cast my show."
Quandt, however, had reservations about some of the language in the show. "We had a discussion about the word F-A-G and queer," said King. "Our principal is uncomfortable with those words but I said that's kind of the point. Those are uncomfortable words, but they are integral to the plot... I compared it to when we did To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago. The N-word is an important part of that story. We kept it in the play with no controversy at all."
For King, simply producing The Laramie Project constitutes what he called "a teachable moment" concerning tolerance. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church inserting themselves into the mix has only served to deepen that experience. "It's raising a discussion in our community about hate crimes and, now, freedom of speech." North Central Social Studies classes are discussing the right to protest. The school newspaper is publishing a special insert dealing with issues raised by the play.
"The whole school is actually talking about the play now," said King. People who aren't in the theatre program or in performing arts are talking about it."
As to any protesters who may arrive on Thursday, King added: "My principal and the administration are ready."
Next up at North Central after this weekend's production of The Laramie Project? Damn Yankees. You Can't Take it With You is slated for this spring.