“The Laramie Project” provides a unique opportunity for families to engage in potentially mind-stretching conversations.
Every ninth grader in this Kathmandu school agreed with the statement “Some people are naturally attracted to people from the same gender.” At another school, the students exhibited more uncertainty. Some chose to line up behind the sign “I am not sure” for the same statement. When asked to explain their stance, a girl said that the statement itself wasn’t very clear to her. So we discussed different kinds of attraction - friendly or romantic, platonic or sexual. Two friends from the same gender can be attracted to each other in a friendly way, I elaborated. But in this case, we are talking about something deeper and stronger. We are talking about sexual orientations.
The Laramie Project
The activity described above is a part of an Educational Program running concurrently with the play, The Laramie Project. The play is based on reactions to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, compiled in hundreds of interviews conducted by members of the Tectonic Theater Company who travelled to Laramie, Wyoming from New York City. Press coverage and journal entries by the company members were also used as raw materials for the play.
The murder drew worldwide attention and focused on the lack of hate-crime laws in the United States because it was established that Matthew was gay. The play has been reproduced all over the United States, particularly in high school and college settings, to teach about prejudice and tolerance.
Directed by Deborah Merola and supported by various organizations, particularly the UNAIDS, The Laramie Project premiered in Kathmandu’s Theater Village on Friday, February 28 and will run until March 15. 24 student, community and professional actors play 55 selected roles in this One World Theater (OWT) production. At a media-briefing, actors and producers confessed that their involvement with the play has been a learning experience for them. They mentioned that they were compelled to examine their own beliefs and attitudes regarding homosexuality.
Sumnima Sampang - who plays the role of a lesbian University professor and also that of a writer - has been enthusiastically joining me in various schools and talking to students about her experience. “I didn’t think much before auditions,” she told me cheerfully on our way back from a school session, “but I have learned so much in the last couple of weeks. I feel empowered.”
Two special matinee shows were planned specially for high school and college students. But it was important to sensitize them before bringing them in. For the pre-viewing lessons, we designed an activity loosely based on “The Argument Game”. Students were asked to choose one of three categories - “I Agree,” “I Disagree,” and “I am not Sure,” in response to various statements. When I held out a sheet that declared “Kathmandu is a beautiful city,” students physically walked over and stood in line behind a teacher who held one of the three signs.
My goal was to precondition the students’ minds. In other words, before asking them to think critically about possibly confusing and troubling ideas, it is important to prepare their minds by asking them to think about relatively familiar ideas. Sure enough, they gradually warmed up to the activity as they explained why they thought Kathmandu was beautiful or not or whether it was a good idea to always spend ones’ time with like-minded friends.
Have a reason; don’t just follow your friends - those were my instructions. “I think black is pretty because it goes along with the other colors,” said a teenager while his classmate explained, “I am not sure that black is pretty because it reminds me of darkness.” After each mini-discussion, students had a few seconds to change their minds. For example, when a couple of girls clearly explained why they disagreed with “Students should be good in sports,” a few boys stepped out from the “I Agree” line and joined the “I Disagree” group.
Think carefully, I kept reminding them. In the above statement about sports, the words “should” and “good” are heavy. What do those really mean? What if some people don’t really care for sports? It may be a good idea to at least try different kinds of sports. But the expectation that every student should be good in sports is problematic.
The day the rains stopped - that afternoon when the clouds finally parted and the sun came out - the ninth graders sat through the roughly two-hour duration of The Laramie Project in awed silence and wonder. Deborah Merola, who has ample experience with different types of audiences, personally congratulated the young students during the intermission. Thank you for your attention. I can tell a good audience from a bad one, she remarked. Almost 180 bodies were packed closely inside the small Lazimpat theater, but quick scans of the crowd revealed wide-eyed engagement, hardly a whisper.
The following day, I asked the students to write freely for about ten minutes. They had an option to respond to prompts such as “I learned that..,” and “I think that….” They were then asked to share their thoughts and feelings with a partner while Sumnima and I went around the room, listening in, questioning and clarifying.
“I loved the part when Matthew’s mom tells everyone to go home and hug their child,” a girl shared with the whole class during the end of this post-viewing session. “We were trying to figure out who the main characters were,” a group of boys chimed in.
There was a lot to reflect on - from the basic experience of watching a theater production to the deeper issues about discrimination and sexuality that is explicitly addressed in the play. In general, I found that the girls were more straightforward, with statements like, “I learned that being gay is normal,” “We are all different and we should respect that,” whereas the boys, for the most part, skirted around the issues and hovered on the surface, “My favorite character was that DJ in the bar,” said one.
Implications for Society
At first, I wasn’t sure how the schools would react to this program but the teachers and principals were fully on board. Later, I was slightly concerned about the parents. “Raise your hands if you went home and talked to your parents about the play,” I wanted to get a quick sense. It seemed that the ones who shared already had a degree of closeness with their parents and were used to talking about controversial topics. “My parents thought that this was a good learning opportunity and appreciated the initiative,” said one student.
It was important to leave a final message, “It’s OK to be confused or unsure about certain ideas. But it’s not OK to have beliefs based on ignorance. If you are still curious, go home and do your research, just like some of you started last night. Discuss it with your friends. And if you think this play is important, if you think that more people should watch it, convince your family to go. Talk to them.”
Niranjan Kunwar is a writer and educator based in Kathmandu. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org