OXFORD, Miss. — An audience consisting of mostly University of Mississippi students, including an estimated 20 Ole Miss football players, disrupted the University’s theater department production of “The Laramie Project” Tuesday night, heckling cast members and shouting anti-gay slurs.
Cast members said the audience became so disruptive at times that they struggled completing the play, reported the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian.
Rory Ledbetter, the play’s director and faculty member, said some audience members used derogatory slurs like “fag” and heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations.
Ledbetter called the audience reactions “borderline hate speech.”
“I am the only gay person on the cast,” said theater major Garrison Gibbons. “I played a gay character in the show, and to be ridiculed like that was something that really made me realize that some people at Ole Miss and in Mississippi still can’t accept me for who I am.”
“The Laramie Project” chronicles the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. Shepard was targeted because he was gay.
Ledbetter told The Daily Mississippian that the football players were not the only audience members that were being offensive, “but they were definitely the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say things, too.”
Theatre Department Chair Rene Pulliam said the football players were asked by the athletics department to apologize to the cast, but said “I’m not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for.”
Ole Miss president Dan Jones and athletic director Ross Bjork released a joint statement on Thursday afternoon saying “we strongly condemn the behavior exhibited Tuesday night.”
The statement says that the incident included freshman athletes from several different sports and it was “clear that some students badly misrepresented the culture of this university.”
“It’s ironic in a way. In (“The Laramie Project’) we address these topics of hate against homosexuals,” Ledbetter said. “What happened in the audience was the very thing we were trying to portray in the show. (The incident) suggests we have a long way to go.”
Ole Miss dean of students Sparky Reardon said a bias incident response team, which is made up of faculty and staff, would investigate the incident and make any discipline recommendations to the university.
Sunday, October 6 marks the 15th anniversary of the attack on Matthew Shepard; he died six days later.