Generally, opening nights tend to be a great time. This one is no exception for our acting company. The mood backstage is nervous, of course, but warm and elevated. After having been stuck amid the picayune details of technical rehearsal, it is liberating to reconnect to the reason we are here. We are sharing Matthew Shepard’s story with an audience eager to hear it.
Generally, opening night audiences tend to feel pretty great too. They’re happy to be the lucky first few. Knowing it is opening night seems to put audiences in a celebratory and forgiving mood. This is even more the case for our first audience because Emerson College has had the brilliant idea of inviting anyone in the Boston area who has ever been involved in a production of our play to come as its guest. So the 1,800-seat house is packed, in good part with young people who have a deep personal connection with the plays, the characters, and our company. You couldn’t ask for a better house, even though, as Jeremy Bobb points out, they will all know when we screw up our lines. We are greeted with entrance applause and ushered out with a standing ovation, and the attention during the show is rapt.
It’s a fantastic first night and a great reminder that the work we are doing is important and continues to have tremendous meaning for many around the country, and particularly for the younger generation. The fist weekend of performances alternating between The Laramie Project and 10 Years Later is naturally a little bumpy — we have had no previews — but by the last shows we are getting our stride as a company and audiences seem to be loving both shows. There are standing ovations every night.
Our touring schedule gives me a little time off, so my friend Rob and I take the ferry to P-town for three days. These are my first days off in weeks and just what I need. We stay in a top floor apartment at the Skiff, overlooking the bay. The weather, which was supposed to be rainy all three days, is very fine. It’s warm enough to swim a little, lie around in the sun, walk around in town. Best of all, even though it’s the off-season, we are surrounded by queer people.
Rob tells me he loves P-town for its architecture, the breakwater, the mud flats, the beaches, the dunes, and the remarkable spiral it makes reaching out into the sea. He also says he loves it because it is “friendly to gay people.” I think that’s why many of us love P-town. It’s why we love Fire Island, South Beach, the Castro, and Chelsea. I am reminded once again of our material from our plays.
In 10 Years Later gay Laramie resident Jonas Slonaker says, “I am completely out now ... Everybody knows that Bill is my boyfriend. But I am in a safe pocket, and the safe pocket is the university. I work in student affairs and that’s a totally safe place to be. Now, if I worked in ag ... agriculture, it would be different ... But finding our safe pockets is what we do as gay people, not just here in Laramie, but wherever we live.”
He’s right. As far as we may have come in our efforts to be safe in this world, we still so often find ourselves gathering together in our “safe pockets.” Even the most outspoken of us sometimes just need a break from the grinding covert homophobia and heterocentricity that surrounds us.
When I arrive back in Boston for the second weekend of shows, word is out that Fred Phelps is planning to protest the performances. Fred Phelps is the minister of the Westboro Baptist Church. He protested outside Matt Shepard's funeral with signs that read “God Hates Fags.” He is also a character in our play. The protesters never show at our performance, although their bus is spotted. Perhaps they don’t descend from their bus because of the 2,000 anti-Fred Phelps demonstrators dressed in white and sporting rainbow ribbons who have taken to the streets in response to his visit. Many of them attend our show, which makes the second weekend’s performances almost as much of a lovefest as the first. Thanks to Fred for making it all happen.
At the same time that Emerson students are taking to the streets to protest Phelps’s threatened appearance, they are reeling from the news of Tyler Clementi’s suicide. It’s a rather schizophrenic experience coming back from Provincetown to be met by beautiful students marching for love and tolerance and by news of Fred Phelps’s hatemongering and Tyler Clementi’s antigay bullying–induced death.
I am reeling along with the students. I have just returned from “safe pocket” of P-town. And I have gotten the sense based on the Emerson students who are attending the play that our colleges are becoming at least “safer pockets.” Now this news about Tyler, a student at a “liberal” college like Rutgers, has sent the whole edifice tumbling down again, and I am listening once again to our plays with fresh ears. I wish that The Laramie Project were simply a historical piece at this point. Unfortunately, it is becoming clear all over again that the play and its sequel, 10 Years Later, are not simply historical idea pieces today. As terrifying as it seems, they may be even more pertinent now than they were 10 years ago.
Next we head to Penn State. Another college. I am now more curious than ever what its response to the play will be.