By MICHAEL AUSHENKER, Staff Writer ‘What led to the murder of the upscale [Matthew] Shepard by the boys in the bar he met that night?’ That’s the question at the heart of ‘The Laramie Project,’ the stage drama coming next week to Malibu, according to its director, George Neilson. The Pepperdine University Fine Arts Division Theatre Department’s presentation of ‘The Laramie Project’ by Mois’s Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 29 through Friday, February 1, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 2, at the Malibu campus’ Helen E. Lindhurst Theatre. Neilson directs the student cast. ‘The Laramie Project’ began in November 1998, one month after Matthew Shepard’s murder on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. The controversial crime, in which Shepard, a homosexual college student, was targeted by a group of ‘townies,’ originally inspired Kaufman and his collaborators to interview residents of the Laramie community and document how they were coping in the wake of the brutal hate crime. They spoke to more than 200 locals, and these interviews evolved into a theatrical event that made its debut at the Denver Center Theatre Company in February 2000. Later that year, the play moved to New York. ‘The Laramie Project’ tries to capture the emotions, reflections, and reactions of the people of Laramie who were most closely related to the crime. The drama’s content challenges the audience to call into question the beliefs and values that form the bedrock of society: faith, tolerance, forgiveness, community, and the desire for truth. ‘It’s still extremely relevant even up to December 2007, when it looked like the Matthew Shepard amendment to the hate crime bill that was enacted in 1969 would pass,’ director Neilson says. ‘The House passed it, the Senate passed it. The bill was then attached to the defense spending bill that was going to the President, so it looked like this was going to override the veto, more than two-thirds votes counted. ‘But when they attached it to the defense bill, the right wing was not going to vote for this Matthew Shepard Act. Meanwhile, the liberals are determined not to vote for defense spending…fund the war…so you lost the edges on both extremes. At the eleventh hour in December in conference, they decided not to pass it.’ Neilson adds, ‘I had no idea it was going to be a cliffhanger like this.’ The young actors in Pepperdine’s theater department supported the idea of mounting this drama. Once the play was chosen from five potential projects that he brought to the table, Neilson tells the Palisadian-Post that he hopped on a plane…direction: northeast. ‘I went to Laramie [Wyoming] last summer to get a feel [of the place] and it changed my initial feeling of the show,’ says Neilson, who witnessed firsthand the stark contrast between the ‘manicured’ University of Wyoming grounds and ‘the other side of the tracks’: the discrepancy between ‘the haves and the have-nots.’ Ultimately, says Neilson, ‘Laramie Project’ challenges the theater-goer with a succession of unresolved questions. ‘There’s poverty and there’s wealth and they don’t seem to mix. Was it a hate crime? Was it a drug deal gone bad? Was it robbery? Jealousy?’ The answers, of course, are left up to the audience’s imagination. ‘The goal of our production is to have people think about what is tolerance, what is acceptance, and continue the discussion,’ says Neilson, who notes that the January 30 performance will be followed by a forum. ‘It’s become one of the most produced plays in American theater,’ Neilson continues. ‘We’re hoping it will create some debate and discussion on campus. ‘The material still resonates. It’s ongoing. That’s why I’ve added to the title ‘The Laramie Project…Ten Years On.” To order tickets, at $15 for the public, call the Pepperdine Center for the Arts Box Office at (310) 506-4522. Tickets are also available through Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information: www.pepperdine.edu/arts. No late seating is allowed. Immediately following the Wednesday performance, a forum for discussion will take place.
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