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N.J. Catholic high school cancels production of ‘The Laramie Project’

Friday, March 23, 2012
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LAWRENCE, N.J. — Administrators at a New Jersey Catholic high school have cancelled the planned production of “The Laramie Project,” and claimed that parents were worried that the choice for the play was inappropriate for high school students.

The Laramie Project” is an award winning play by Moisés Kaufman, and is based on the violent 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay college student in Wyoming who was beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

The cancellation by officials at Notre Dame High School has provoked outrage from students and cast members, who allege the action was based on pressure from a limited number of parents and others in the school community.

“The spring play was supposed to be ‘The Laramie Project,’ but as we were a week into rehearsals, the show was shut down due to the complaints from the community and parents of the school,” said cast member Sabrina Campelo, a sophomore at Notre Dame.

“The show was already approved by our president and our principal and they allowed the pressure of the community to shut it down. Us students all signed up for this project to share the story and spread awareness to help educate the ignorant people. Our play was shut down, for the same reason we were putting it up,” she said.

Students and cast members said they have been robbed of their ability to put on a thought-provoking and powerful play, one whose message of tolerance resonates powerfully in the wake of the Tyler Clementi cyber-bullying verdict, and other anti-harassment efforts in New Jersey and around the nation.

“I wanted to do a show that had meaning and purpose to it, and when I found out we were doing ‘The Laramie Project’ I got really excited because this show teaches the values I’ve been taught my last 12 years of Catholic education,” said cast member Tessa Holtenrichs, a senior at Notre Dame. “When I was told we couldn’t do it, I felt like it was really hypocritical.”

School President Barry Breen and principal Mary Ivins said in a statement the choice for the spring play was originally seen as a “powerful and appropriate vehicle” to address issues of respect and tolerance. But as calls questioning the play’s content rolled in, officials worried that the controversy would become distracting, and the decision was made Tuesday to cancel the show, reported the Times of Trenton.

“The expression of these concerns opened our eyes to the realization that different eyes will see radically different messages than the ones we intended,” they said.

“This has led the administration to conclude that we might inadvertently be placing our school at the center of an undesired and potentially damaging controversy by moving forward with the production.”

In 2009, members of the anti-gay, extremist Westboro Baptist Church picketed a production of “The Laramie Project” at an Indianapolis high school. Other shows, including several at Catholic high schools, have drawn little backlash.

Cast members and school officials said the play had been edited slightly to remove some language and one particularly intense scene. Few uttered surprise at the complaints the play drew at Notre Dame, but said the Catholic Church, which opposes gay marriage, has maintained gays are still deserving of love and understanding.

“The Laramie Project” has been produced worldwide since its premiere in 2000, and since then it has been performed by hundreds of high schools, colleges and community theaters; in 2002, the play was commissioned by HBO for a feature film.

Neither the high school nor the Archdiocese of Trenton returned calls or e-mails from LGBTQ Nation seeking comment on the play’s cancellation.

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