Students protest after district vetoes play

“The Laramie Project” tells the true story of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.

Oak Harbor High School students are appealing to the school board after their principal prohibited the theater department from performing a play that depicts a community’s reaction to a young gay man’s murder.

“The Laramie Project” tells the true story of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was targeted because of his sexuality. The script uses the text of news reports and interviews conducted by the play’s original cast of residents in Laramie following Shepard’s death.

The play has been performed at high schools across the country, including several school districts in Washington, such as Brush Prairie, Mercer Island, Woodinville, Camas and Bellevue.

Oak Harbor High School juniors Eclipse Garrett and Grace Jones are fighting Principal Nathan Salisbury’s decision to bar the play.

Garrett and Jones were members of a group of theater students who attended the Washington State Thespian Festival at Western Washington University this past March.

The students viewed cuttings of several plays performed by other high schoolers from across the state. A cutting is a shortened version of a full play. Eric George, who volunteers for the high school’s theater department, said students from Woodinville High School performed a few core scenes from “The Laramie Project.”

“It was the most moving experience I have ever had,” Garrett recalled.

“Everyone was crying,” Jones added.

Garrett, Jones and George said it was the first time in a long time Oak Harbor theater students were motivated to perform a specific play.

“For once, it was something that they wanted to do,” George said. “…It was 100% the group that saw the cutting who were the ones that really fought for it.”

George said while there are curse words and anti-gay slurs in the script, there is nothing else that would make it inappropriate for high schoolers. He believed that it does not push any agenda and stressed that the script simply depicts the true events that happened in Laramie after Shepard’s murder.

George said the theater department has done plays in the past with “intense content.” Last year’s “Dracula,” for example, depicted sexuality, death, blood and a scene where a baby is eaten on stage. In “The Laramie Project,” there are mentions but no on-stage depictions of violence.

The department has also performed “All My Sons,” which depicts suicide, and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which uses the n-word, George said.

Garrett, who is president of the high school’s drama club, conducted a vote among the officers of the club after viewing the cutting. A majority of the students voted to perform the play with two dissenters, Garrett said.

Garrett and Jones said their drama teacher Micki Gibson received an email from Salisbury in which he said he did not approve the play. This was followed by a meeting between Salisbury, Gibson, Garrett, Jones and the two students who voted in opposition.

Garrett and Jones said the meeting was unproductive and they did not feel heard by Salisbury, who insisted that “The Laramie Project” was inappropriate for high school students.

A second meeting was held for Salisbury to announce his decision about a week and a half later. Jones said Salisbury argued that students are coming to counselors with issues relating to depression and he did not think it was a good idea to perform such an “upsetting” play.

Jones, however, said she has personally suffered from depression and the experience of seeing the cutting of “The Laramie Project” helped her.

“I finally felt seen and heard and like I wasn’t alone for the first time,” she said, adding that she thought anyone could connect to the show regardless of their background.

In a statement to the News-Times, Salisbury said: “Staff work closely with their students and administration to select school plays that are balanced and representative of the student voice, our school culture, and aligned to our adopted school curriculum. We strive to select plays that are age and school appropriate for all students and our community.”

Superintendent Michelle Kuss-Cybula agrees with his decision, according to a statement from the district.

Garrett and Jones will present the issue to the Oak Harbor school board at Monday’s meeting. Garrett said their goal is to perform it at the high school next year and also perform a cutting of it at the State Thespian Festival.

While members of the Whidbey Playhouse have been supportive of producing the “The Laramie Project” there, both students said they would rather have it at the high school because they want their peers to see it and it would be more accessible as tickets would be cheaper.

Garrett and Jones have started a petition entitled “Perform Laramie Project at OHHS” that currently has over 500 signatures.