Lessons Learned from Cancelling "The Laramie Project" at a Catholic High School

One has to wonder what kind of lessons are taught to students when parents’ complaints to New Jersey Catholic high school administrators caused the cancelling of a production of The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young Wyoming gay man.

According to a news story in The Trenton Times, the decision to cancel the show, originally scheduled for Notre Dame high school in Lawrence, N.J.,

“has proved to be just as controversial as the play’s edgy and dramatic portrayal of a Wyoming town gripped in the aftermath of a hate crime.

“On one side, school administrators say parents worried that the choice for the play was inappropriate for high schoolers, too loaded in its tale of the murder of a young gay man beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

“But cast members and students at the Catholic high school said they’ve been unfairly 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 cyberbullying verdict and other anti-harassment efforts.

“ ‘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,’ cast member and Notre Dame senior Tessa Holtenrichs said. ‘When I was told we couldn’t do it, I felt like it was really hypocritical.’ ”

Clearly, the overwhelming lessons of the school’s action are going to be that censorship is appropriate, that homosexuality is a forbidden topic, and that concerns about sexual activity are much more important that lessons about respect and tolerance.

What makes this decision even more difficult to understand is that that school administrators had previously deliberated over whether or not to stage the play, and had made a conscious decision that it would be beneficial to do so:

“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.

“ ‘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.’ ”

The administration’s rationale teaches the wrong lesson that public pressure, not a principled decision, should be guide one’s thought.

Not all parents were against the staging of the play.  At least one thought the play–and its ensuing controversy–had the potential for an important lesson:

“ ‘I think the people had the assumption that the play was going to do something it never would have done, to encourage students to become homosexuals instead of not killing homosexuals,’ Diane Steinberg, a parent of a Notre Dame student and an alum, said during an interview.

“She said the school missed the chance to turn any controversy into a teachable moment.”

As one student’s comments illustrate, preparing for the play was already producing beneficial lessons for students:

“ ‘My director, Ms. (Diane) Wargo, said something pretty powerful,’  [Tessa] Holtenrichs said. ‘She said Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us to have so many rules about who to love and how to love. I thought that was great.’ ”

What is even more surprising is that many Catholic high schools and colleges stage this play regularly.  In 2010, Xavier High School in Manhattan, produced this play for the second time in less than ten years, and withstood pressure to cancel it.  According to a New York Times article:

“Not only did Xavier’s president and headmaster approve the plan for ‘Laramie,’ they informed Mr. Ostrow [the drama teacher]  that he was not exactly breaking new ground. Xavier had performed ‘Laramie’ in the 2002-3 school year, standing by the production even amid some eye-rolling and grumbling among faculty members and parents and a smattering of picketing from fundamentalist Christians. “

What lessons did staging this production at Xavier teach students?  According to school administrators quoted in theNew York Times:

“ ;I’m thrilled we did it,; Jack Raslowsky, Xavier’s president, said in an interview this week. ‘It’s one of those plays that has the potential to be a springboard to discussion. If you do “The Mousetrap” or “Brigadoon,” you’re not going to be discussing issues of good and evil.’

“Such a discussion, said Mr. Raslowsky and Michael LiVigni, the headmaster, fits firmly in the Catholic theological tradition, with its emphases on social justice and human dignity.

“ ‘When I saw the play,’ Mr. LiVigni said, ‘what struck me most was the scene of Matthew’s funeral when you have picketers with the sign “God Hates You.” But why would God hate what he created? That’s what I want our boys to understand.’ ”

Now, that’s a lesson worth teaching and learning.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



0 replies
  1. Jeff Van Velsor
    Jeff Van Velsor says:

    This is why I spend more Sundays in a Theater than in a Church. I think the community and lessons learned are far more valuable to my time on earth than worrying about what MAY happen to me later. And I am confident that my spiritual portfolio and resume will get me on any Production Staff in the Sky, no matter who the Big Director may turn out to be. And I say this as someone who went thru 8 years of Catholic School and who’s family was VERY involved in the Church Community. In high school, I ‘found theater’ (and came out) and I was ‘saved’ only by the strong bonds of my theater friends who accepted me for every aspect of myself. I hope that every single LGBTQ youth finds their way onto or backstage. Theater people, Divas included, are the most Life Affirming bunch of people you will every be fortunate to be around. And no matter where that final Cast Party may be, Im sure it will be a blast!

  2. Chris Kohn
    Chris Kohn says:

    I wonder what the GLBT kids who go to that school are feeling in the wake of the administration’s decision? I’m disappointed that once again the most intolerant 10% has gotten to dictate policy in a Catholic institution.

  3. Susan Cusack
    Susan Cusack says:

    I am the parent of one of the students in the cast. I could tell you what many of them feel but if you really want to know, take a look at their facebook page ND Students Against The Cancelling of The Laramie Project https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/204765509627548/?bookmark_t=group .

    Our children are a credit to their families and their school. They have demonstrated their passion for the message of love and tolerance contained in The Laramie Project with the utmost maturity and respect. Their responses have been eloquent and deeply moving.

    I quote a young man who posted the following: “I have friends in the play. This play meant so much to them and represented a cause and a struggle much greater than the play itself. These kids, my friends, are hurting. For some, they needed this play. They were willing to put their hearts, their souls, and their being into this play, the way a painter tries to express the beauty of his surroundings, or the way a musician can close his eyes and play, to let you know that he is capable of love.”

    I am left feeling that everyone has lost something in this. However, the ones who have lost the most are those who were too small minded to recognize the value of embracing social justice. Our children will go on to do greater things to impact this world and those who opposed this will be left inside the walls they have erected.


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