The Laramie Project
Perspective Complicating Human Interaction in Zeitoun and The Laramie Project
Each person has a unique worldview, which is largely shaped by one’s environment, knowledge, beliefs, and more. Those who identify similarly are largely grouped with others who may have the same background. Both Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project and David Egger’s Zeitoun explore the relationship between majority groups and minority groups: In Zeitoun’s case, a committed belief in Islam versus a largely Christian America, and in Matthew Shepard’s case, an open identification with the LGBT community versus the straight population. These two individuals faced prejudice due to intrinsic aspects of who they are, which appeared to overshadow the rest of their being and lead to discrimination. Prejudiced perspectives are born out of both fear, and the influence of an individual or groups’ environment; this prompts conflict with minority groups in society, complicating human interaction.
The individuals who discriminated again Matthew Shepard due to his sexual orientation were afraid of being associated with homosexuality, while both individuals and the government as a whole were prejudiced against Zeitoun, fearing malice and terrorism. The end of the third act of The Laramie Project focuses on the trial of Aaron McKinney. During his trial, the prosecution plays a tape of his confession, in which Rob DeBree, the chief investigator of Matthew’s murder, interrogates him. When asking Aaron what happened after Matt got in the car with him and Russell, he claims Matt started to grab his genitals. He defends himself, saying “‘Look, I’m not a fuckin’ faggot. If you touch me again you’re gonna get it’”; a few minutes later, DeBree asks if he hates gay people. Aaron responds, “I don’t hate [gay people] but you know, when they start coming on to me and stuff like that I get pretty aggravated” (Kaufman 527). Although Aaron claimed he didn’t hate gay people, he felt like his masculinity was being challenged during this encounter, which brought out an intense feeling of insecurity and discomfort. Aaron’s defensive response indicated that he was afraid to be associated with homosexuality in any way. This could be due to the fear of societal judgment, especially in a relatively “old fashioned”and religious town where preachers spread the idea of eternal damnation in hell for homosexuals. Aaron’s perspective of what it means to be a gay man is skewed as a result of his fear; by viewing all homosexuals the same way and grouping them, he creates conflict with this minority group. He acts upon the unease he experiences, morphing it into anger and hate. In Zeitoun, after the National Guard forcefully brings Zeitoun to “Camp Greyhound”, Zeitoun is initially astonished and confused. He becomes increasingly more afraid as Todd asks a passing soldier why they’re here, and the soldier says that they are al Qaeda. In some ways, Zeitoun had been waiting for this day since 9/11, when “…he and Kathy knew that many imaginations had run amok, that the introduction of the idea of “sleeper cells”… meant that everyone at their mosque, or the entire mosque itself, might be waiting for instructions from their presumed leaders in the hills of Afghanistan or Pakistan” (Egger 212). Zeitoun had always known this was a possibility due to the increased fear of the American citizens and government after the transformative terrorist attack that put many on high alert. Since the act was committed by an Islamic extremist group, Islamophobia has increased ever since. Islamic people soon became highly associated with terrorism, and paranoia ensued. Although the American people have the right to feel afraid of any group or person who presents a clear threat of danger, many have taken this fear too far, forgetting that extremist views in the Islamic community is far less common than it may seem and that many Muslim Americans do not have any ties to Afghanistan or Pakistan. This perspective of the Islamic people has created conflict with many innocent Muslims such as Zeitoun. Generalizing an enormous group of people has proved to complicate human interaction, for fear tends to cloud one’s judgement and turn groups of people against one another. The same can be said for Aaron and Russell; they were, among other things, afraid of association with homosexuals. This fear led to irrationality, which led to further conflict and violence.
Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson’s environment negatively shaped their beliefs; in addition, the state of New Orleans during Katrina was part of the US government’s environment, prompting institutionalized prejudice against Zeitoun. Act II of The Laramie Project begins with an account of how the media arrived in Laramie after the news story about Matthew was released. After a few interviews with the residents of Laramie, reporters invade the stage. They speak about the background of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, with Newsperson 2 claiming they “…came from the poor side of town. Both were from broken homes and as teenagers had had run ins with the law…” (Kaufman 506). Aaron and Russell’s childhood experiences shaped them to be the people who killed Matthew Shepard. Coming from the “poor side of town”, they likely did not have access to the education and resources available to the “richer side of town”. They would have been surrounded by similar people, and thus would have been encouraged to stay in their current mindsets, conform to their community, and embrace their arguably immoral attitudes and values. Instead of seeking better opportunities elsewhere or even in their own community, they allowed the hardship of being poor to envelop them, angering them and shaping their prejudiced beliefs. Being poor, they may have also felt the need to prove their power. Although this was not necessarily their fault, they acted on their discriminatory perspectives, inciting conflict with Matthew, the Laramie community, and the entire LGBT community across America. The end of Zeitoun clarifies the government’s purpose in arresting Zeitoun. Kathy finds out that as Katrina was approaching, a document was spread to law-enforcement agencies and National Guard units in the region, written by representatives of Homeland Security, the CIA, Marines, and corporate security firms. The committee “…had been asked to ‘speculate on possible terrorist exploitation of a high category hurricane’” (Eggers 308). The American government created an entire committee dedicated to “hunting” potential terrorists rather than of focusing on the larger issue at hand. Hurricane Katrina created a situation in which America’s typically safe, first world environment failed its citizens. Although creating this committee may have seemed like a necessary precaution, the government did not execute the program well, leading to stereotyping. This committee’s perspective created an unfortunate and unjust situation for many Muslim Americans such as Zeitoun, who was like any other citizen terrorized by the storm. In both cases, the environment had a large role in complicating human interaction and creating conflict targeting minority groups. However, these factors are not solely responsible for the pain inflicted on Matthew, the Laramie community, and Zeitoun and his family. The government knew this type of committee and stereotyping could lead to trouble. Ultimately, it was each person’s and group’s conscious decision to create conflict with these minority groups.
Factors such as fear of a minority group and environmental situations shape discriminatory perspectives, which causes conflict. This conflict allows people to make inferences about human nature as a whole, on a larger scale. Although human conflict is easily spurred as a result of a diverse collection of differing opinions, a large amount of differing perspectives is essential to the exchange of ideas and positive change. It carries initially negative implications, but also encourages human interaction, allowing social topics present in all people’s lives to take the stage, pushing movements that create meaningful change. Issues such as homophobia and Islamophobia are entirely relevant today; when confronting these topics, all perspectives should be taken into account and continue to change through education and discussion.
Discourse Communities, Censorship, and Outsider Perspective in “The Laramie Project”
Joseph Harris outlines an analytical approach to rhetoric through the identification and classification of discourse communities. The application of Harris’ model to The Laramie Project reveals two individual communities’ desires to be perceived as positive entities, but also the actual impact that their rhetoric has on the outside observers.The Laramie Project is a play composed of a series of interviews taken by the Tectonic Theatre Project of New York. The group traveled to Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 to collect over 200 perspectives on the murder of Matthew Shepard. Matt was a student at the University of Wyoming, located in Laramie. He was kidnapped, driven to a remote area, beaten, and tied to a fence. A few days later, he died due to the injuries sustained in the beating. Matt was homosexual and his death was motivated by the perpetrators’ hate for the gay community. The play eloquently reveals a series of discourse communities within Laramie as they reflect upon the hate crime that their town is now known for. One identifiable discourse community is the elderly women of Laramie, Wyoming. Two members of this community, Marge Murray and Alison Mears, sit down to converse with an interviewer. Marge and Alison are posed as the insiders of the elderly discourse community, while the interviewer is the outsider who records the discourse that the reader or audience member is exposed to. This discourse community bonds over their roots in the city and shared experiences growing up in Wyoming. As a community, they can reflect on the past together in relaxed and lighthearted spirits. Marge and Alison discuss all topics imaginable. They speak of personal occupations and upbringing in the city, the economic history of Laramie, and current pitfalls that the city has faced due to constant change in society. These topics evoke certain tropes that the interviewer is confused temporarily thrown off by. Through his questioning the audience or readers can come to understand phrases like “S.O.L.” and “all-togethers” (Kauffman 28). These tropes and many others help highlight the goodhearted nature of the Laramie of the past and the somewhat downtrodden and unequal state of Laramie in 1998.While the two women choose to speak freely of themselves and the topics outlined, they refuse to explore certain genres of speech. The women will not reveal to the outsider personal information that directly harms their current community. Due to prompting by the interviewer, Marge must confront the issue of Matthew Shepard. She does so in a way of refusal of more information. She is closely tied to the case, and will not incriminate or discuss current personal afflictions with the outsider, especially due to the fact that her words will be shared with more individuals through the script of a play. She simply states “Laramie is live and let live,” while Alison explains that “She knows more than she is willing to say” (Kauffman 28). In this moment of refusal, Marge helps to identify the authority of her discourse community. Authority is defined by connection to the content of the conversation. The authority is not static, but rather shifts as the topics of discourse shift. Both women act as the authority when speaking on Laramie, history, and more. However, Marge, as the mother of the officer that found Matt, is the authority on this topic and sets the bounds for the conversation at this point in the discourse.The identification and exploration of these two women as members of a discourse community defined by Harris, allows the reader or audience member to properly analyze the practices of the community and their consequential perspectives. In this discourse community the ease of tropes and common background allow the individuals to freely share both personal and over-arching information in a fun and enlightening atmosphere. These women are clearly comfortable within their discourse community. Due to their ease, approach to discourse, and strong relation to each other the outsider, the reader, or the audience member is given a chance to peer into their livelihood. They leave a positive impression of themselves and their community. Though the women discuss the economic downfalls of current times, the outsiders are swept up by the discourse surrounding their past experiences and general positive attitude towards life. It is difficult to find a negative outlook on this community when the women so openly expose the root of their being to a complete stranger and outsider to the community.In addition to the positivity that these women thrust upon the observer, a sense of compassion is hard to avoid while examining their discourse. The two women transform from light-hearted to distant and static as they breech genres of speech outside of their community boundaries. The role of authority allows the observer to recognize that as common ground is lost in this community, so is the equality of the speakers. Marge’s direct connection to the Matthew Shepard case ignites a reaction in her discourse that shapes the discomfort of the community in addressing the topic at hand. She remains sincere, but is unable to articulate the source of her distress to the outsider. The observer is engulfed in compassion as he or she watches or reads the vivacious discourse community struggle and turn away from the interviewer. This discourse community, like any other, identifies itself with the best attributes and shies away from genres that manifest a negative side to the community.Another discourse community can be identified in the youth of Laramie, and more specifically in the friends of Aaron McKinney. Aaron McKinney is one of the two men that savagely beat Matthew. Shannon and Jen, Aaron’s friends, were interviewed one night at a local bar. Their discourse community includes Shannon, Jen, Aaron, and other friends; though there is only recorded text from two members of the group. Shannon and Jen explore a wide variety of topics with the outsider in a very short amount of time. Drugs, alcohol, robbery, education, friendship, and more are mentioned and investigated by the two friends. They spend excessive amounts of time on the topic of drugs, where tropes like “tweak” and “bowl” are used frequently (Kauffman 37). Other lexical tropes include the use curse words and derogatory slang terms for homosexuals. Both of the participants in the interview act as speakers in the discourse community, but their speech hints at an absent source of authority.Aaron McKinney, above all is the authority figure in this discourse community. Shannon and Jen freely share their habits with illegal substances and poor life choices. However, as the topic of Aaron McKinney approaches censorship of speech becomes apparent. Their friendship and relations to Aaron are topics that are articulated with a sense of goodwill and humor to the outsider. Once the interviewer prompts the two for further information regarding Matthew or Aaron’s view of homosexuals Jen steps forward to act as the buffer for Aaron. Shannon carelessly begins to throw around information that Shannon regards as private to the community. These topics, those that incriminate Aaron the most, are permitted under strict rules. Jen begins to claim that “yeah, it probably would have pissed him off that Matt was – ” (Kauffman 38). She stops herself in the middle of her sentence in order that she can paint her authority figure in a better light. Suddenly, anger towards Matthew’s sexual orientation is reworded, lacking the discourse community’s tropes, to explain that he simply did not agree with the lifestyle of gay men. She carefully rewords and corrects her own statements, as well as Shannon’s, in an attempt to uphold their authority figure and respect the tolerated genres of discussion they are allowed. The permissible topics are limited to the common ground in which they identify with each other: drugs, school, and other related activities.The practices of this discourse community allow the members to openly discuss illegal activity, personal opposition to others, and failure of education. The two jest about these usually sensitive areas of discussion with the outsider as if they were discussing a fun day at the park. This structure of the community permits the observer to experience a new understanding of Aaron McKinney, the perpetrator, through the social world that enveloped his life. While Shannon and Jen do not radiate positivity, there is a sense of truth in their words that suggests they are not ashamed of the people that they are or the lives that they live. Though society may look down on this specific discourse community, they do not look down upon themselves.On the other hand, this community also creates barriers for any outsider attempting to piece together the humanity in Aaron McKinney. This discourse community dictates that censorship is a necessary component when speaking to an outsider. This censorship, like that of Marge and Alison’s, is done out of protection for the community as a whole. However, for Shannon and Jen it only suggests that their community is involved in even more shameful activities and ways of thinking than the somewhat disturbing reality they freely revealed. This leads the observer of the community to question the moral code in which the community operates, and consequently the moral code Aaron McKinney operates by. It appears that the community clings to a set of ethical rules that do not work in cohesion with the general consensus of their town. If this were false, then the censorship in the interview would not be necessary. Shannon and Jen, in an attempt to salvage their discourse community, only further condemn themselves in the views of the outsiders.Joseph Harris’ model for discourse communities allows the observer to analyze the groups within The Laramie Project from an outsider perspective. It is revealed that the members of the town, in particular the elderly generation, suffer immensely from the change they have endured over the years. Marge and Alison have coped with changes in Laramie throughout their lifetime. The hate crime and death of Matthew Shepard prompts the two to confront yet another downfall in their hometown. This is tasking duty, and in their inability to address the suffering, the women win the sympathy and compassion of the outside observer. Contrastingly, the outsider views the friends of Aaron McKinney as toxic and malignant members of society. Their discourse community attempts to reveal themselves in a positive light, but fails to do so through their constant censorship. The rules that govern this community allow the outsider to judge their actions, and in turn, judge the perpetrator even more. Both communities fight to portray themselves as positive entities through rhetoric. Harris allows the outsider to analyze their attempts and weigh their successes or failures through his model for discourse communities.
Background Characters in Docudrama
When creating a docudrama (a piece of art that recreates events that transpired in the past), it is imperative that the individuals onstage are portrayed as realistic characters and that the historical events are depicted as they truly happened—with as little bias or judgement as possible. This desire to remain objective has given birth to the subgenre of verbatim theatre, wherein the characters represented onstage speak the exact same words of their real-life counterparts. Playwrights Anna Deavere Smith of her series On the Road: The Search for American Character and Moisés Kaufman of the Tectonic Theater Project have come to embody this fact-finding philosophy with grace and efficacy. Their plays Fires in the Mirror and The Laramie Project seek to represent the events of the past and, if unable to uncover the truth of the events, aim to at least showcase the perspectives of the people involved in their respective crises.
One of the most important choices an artist needs to make in creating a piece of investigative theatre is what portion of the material is included in the final product—and in what order. In the performing arts, this sequence of decisions typically consists of arriving at a location, interviewing witnesses, gathering literary sources, and compiling the total information into theatrical scenes and acts to be performed for an audience. In this case, the material chosen to be included in the final script must be related to the main events of the story (the real-life incident the play depicts) as well as thematically relevant to the overarching message.
This might appear to be an obvious goal: only include characters who know what they’re talking about and are closely related to the narrative. In these two plays, however, what’s remarkable is how the authors use seemingly irrelevant characters and monologues as exposition or between the “main” roles. To achieve their goal of documenting real-life events in a theatrical format, both Smith and Kaufman supplement the firsthand accounts of those individuals closely linked to the inciting incident with scenes featuring characters more distantly connected to the main story. This is done for the audience’s benefit in order to provide important context, reinforce the theme, and construct a thorough representation of real-world events and locations.
The 1993 play Fires of the Mirror tells the story of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, New York. Interviewed, written, and performed by the same person, Anna Deavere Smith puts on a production of the cultural conflict featuring viewpoints from both the Jewish and African American citizens. Following the goal of verbatim theatre, this play consists of word-for-word transcriptions and recitations of real interviews—each scene of the play, therefore, consists of a several-page monologue delivered from the voice of the person being interviewed.
One of the earlier monologues speaks to the notion of hidden value. On the phone with an anonymous Lubavitcher woman, Smith gets told a story which later she dubs “Static.” This monologue recounts an anecdote of a Jewish woman whose infant child inadvertently turns on a loud radio, and she is unable to turn it off because of religious taboo during the holiday. “We can’t turn off, we can’t turn off electrical, you know electricity, on Shabbas,” she says (Smith 7). Later, she realizes that it won’t be against the Torah to ask someone indirectly to turn off the radio, so she finds a non-Jewish resident to help her:
“So I went outside and I saw a little boy in the neighborhood who I didn’t know and didn’t know me—not Jewish, he was black and he wasn’t wearing a yarmulke because you can’t—so I went up to him and I said to him that my radio is on really loud and I can’t turn it off, could he help me, so he looked at me a little crazy like, Well? And I said I don’t know what to do, so he said okay, so he followed me into the house and he hears this music on so loud and so un pleasant and so he goes over to the stereo and he says ‘You see this little button here that says on and off? Push that in and that turns it off.’ And I just sort of stood there looking kind of dumb” (8).
This monologue and its content might seemingly be out of place in a play that documents the violent riots and cultural conflict that left two people dead and many injured; in a strictly plot- and character-oriented way of thinking, the anonymous Lubavitcher woman should not be present in this story. In terms of setting the stage for the main events of the play and introducing important context, however, this monologue is rife with effectiveness.
The woman’s tale synchronizes extremely well with the composition of the play and the four phases of social drama as defined by Richard Schechner. This takes place before the breach of norm—as evidenced by the woman’s lack of hesitance to interact with a black boy—and goes about establishing who the Jewish people are and what tenets they value. In terms of dramatic structure, the monologue fulfills the role of exposition; if the play began with the heightened and emotionally intense monologues found at the end of our version, there would be no chance to introduce many of the lifestyles and values that “Static” presents.
Another early monologue that may seem out of place is “Mirrors and Distortions,” as narrated by Aaron M. Bernstein. He is a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his interview with Smith consists of explaining how mirrors and telescopes work from a scientific standpoint.
“It’s a big subject, distortions. . . . And then there’s always something called the circle of confusion. So if ya don’t make the thing perfectly spherical or parabolic then, then, uh, if there are errors in the construction which you can see, it’s easy, if it’s huge, then you’re gonna have a circle of confusion, you see?” (14).
Of course, this might seem superfluous in a play about violent riots, but once again, it’s the thematic relevant that matters. It’s no accident Smith decides to title this piece “Mirrors and Distortions.” The information Bernstein shares does not relate to the story directly, but the word choice and metaphors used (however inadvertent they may have been at the time) are used by Smith to reinforce the overarching theme of distortion, confusion, and broken mirrors—a concept that the playwright wants to settle in the audience’s mind before the intensity begins.
In 1998 outside the town of Laramie, Wyoming, university student Matthew Shepard was strapped to a fence, tortured, and left for dead—suffering catastrophic injuries and dying six days later in emergency care. The murder became a media frenzy, and a nationwide discussion about homophobia and acceptance began. The next month, members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to conduct interviews in the hopes of creating a piece of theatre about the event. As they did with all their productions, they had two goals: “(1) to examine the subject matter at hand, and (2) to explore theatrical language and form” (Kaufman VI).
This play is structured a little differently than the previous one; rather than a sequence of monologues, the play consists of dialogue and scenes, performed by several actors playing over two dozen roles. The character in this production who is seemingly in the background yet nonetheless provides important thematic context appears in the form of Jedadiah Schulz. His first appearance is his only direct connection to the events of the play—he mentions how Laramie is “defined by a crime” and how it will take some time to “get rid of that” (9). A few pages later, he has the longest monologue yet, which tells the story of how, as an acting student, he prepared for a competition using a scene from Angels in America—which he performed against his parents’ wishes due to its depiction of homosexuality. After claiming first place and a scholarship to the university, he admitted it was the best moment of his life (12).
Like the anonymous woman and Dr. Bernstein from Fires in the Mirror, Jedidiah’s character is not directly connected to the main events of the crisis—in this play’s case, the murder of Matthew Shepard and the subsequent court hearings. He was not close to Matthew, but he is used in the play on several occasions, scattered through the three acts. He has no direct plot connections, but his effectiveness as a character comes from his close thematic significance.
The acting student makes his second-to-last appearance in Act III, and arguably his most memorable moment comes when he describes the discussion with his parents about auditioning for a role in Angels in America once it’s performed by the University of Wyoming:
“We got into this huge argument . . . and my best, the best thing that I knew I had them on is it was just after they had seen me in a performance of Macbeth, and onstage like I murdered like a little kid, and Lady Macduff and these two other guys and like she goes, ‘Well, you know homosexuality is a sin’—she kept saying that—and I go, ‘Mom, I just played a murderer tonight. And you didn’t seem to have a problem with that . . .'” (85).
Like with Smith’s inclusion of background characters, Kaufman includes Schulz’s monologues with careful intention. What better way to showcase the apparent hypocrisy and intolerance of the people of Laramie, Wyoming than with parents who cherry-pick the sins they can tolerate seeing their son perform onstage? This isolated moment in the play is used as a representation of the entire town of Laramie and, to an extent, the nation as a whole. Jedadiah’s nameless parents symbolize the country’s lingering resentment towards homosexual people and, although it has no impact on the story, his monologues signify a strong reinforcement of thematic story elements.
Jedadiah only makes an appearance a few select times, but his character arc is evenly distributed across the play and, when he comes back at the end and reflects on his past statements, he is able to change just like some of the other characters. It is characters like the anonymous Lubavitcher woman, Dr. Bernstein, and Jedadiah Schulz that enhance the thematic energy of a piece of documentary theatre and help the playwrights carry out their goal of exploring what it means to be human in a world full of conflict.
Kaufman, Moisés. The Laramie Project. Vintage Books, 2001.
Smith, Anna Deavere. Fires in the Mirror. Anchor Books, 1993.