Fred Phelps is back in town, but this time the anti-gay pastor from Kansas is spewing his hate on the Wasson High School auditorium stage.
Phelps, played by a Wasson staff member, is leading a group of protesters whose signs read "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for AIDS." They're outside a funeral for Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old who was kidnapped, severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo., because he was a homosexual.
The group is targeting black-clad mourners: a congregation, heads bent in sorrow, and others who could not fit into the church. Phelps yells obscenities of hate above the minister's calm preaching. The lights dim; confrontation seems inevitable.
Then angels appear from somewhere off stage. Wordlessly, they stand in front of Phelps, their large wings stretching to cover the signs.
Suddenly a low rumble of "Amazing Grace" rises. Phelps yells louder, but the singing swells through the auditorium.
"I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind but now I see."
As the last line fades out, Phelps is finally quiet.
Years in the making
This is a Wasson High dress rehearsal of The Laramie Project, a play based directly on the research of Moiss Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project, who spent a year in Laramie interviewing more than 200 people after Shepard's 1998 murder.
Since the play's debut in 2000, schools and theater companies across the country have performed it to inspire discussions about tolerance, inclusion and citizenship.
Nancy Vogel, Wasson's drama department chair, first read aloud The Laramie Project with a class in 2005.
"We were struck by the style in which the play was written," says Vogel, "and this particular class decided that we were going to perform it."
At the time, District 11 administrators had to approve any school production. Wasson principal Sean Dorsey asked students to postpone their request, to "wait for a more tolerant time," recalls Vogel. Dorsey, today's students say, was just trying to protect the school community from unnecessary controversy. (Dorsey did not respond to a request for an interview.)
By late 2007, however, students felt the school needed this play more than ever. Wasson graduate Diontea Jackson-Forrest and student Michael Fisher had been murdered within about four months of each other. The murders were not hate crimes, but they left Wasson's students on edge.
"We knew the play could help change that," says junior Millie Harrison, "because it would make us talk about the impacts of violence on a community."
Vogel initiated the push, but the students soon took over. They wrote proposals for the play, sent petitions to Dorsey and knocked on administrators' doors.
"We're supporting it we're behind this play. It's not just the teachers," says senior Kaitlin Porter. "It helps that we're Ms. Vogel's army, but we're also our own army."
Dorsey, who since had gained the power to make theater decisions, initially said no. But parents, students and teachers continued campaigning, and the principal changed his mind at the end of the last school year.
This story, though, goes beyond the stage.
Early in this school year, Vogel and Wasson's student leadership organization planned an "Erase Hate Week." Taking inspiration from the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Vogel and school organizations assigned different themes to each day from Nov. 4 through Nov. 7: One, for instance, called for no gossip; another, for random acts of kindness. The efforts culminated with a downtown "peace walk" on Nov. 8.
The drama department also helped organize classroom discussions about tolerance and hate. And this is where the story actually goes beyond the school.
Before Dorsey even approved the production, the locally based Bee Vradenburg Foundation gave the drama department a $1,000 grant toward scripts, sets, props, supplies, royalties and classroom study packets to guide those classroom discussions. The department is typically funded by student fees and ticket sales; Vogel says without the grant, many of the off-stage efforts would not have been possible.
"We don't traditionally give funds directly to school education art programs, because we simply don't have the resources to fund all of these," says executive director Susan Edmondson. "But this project stood out."
'Just like Wasson'
Days before opening night, cast members sit around the dressing room.
"In my opinion, the play is more about the community than the actual incident," says senior Anthony Liquori. "It's about the community coming together after the incident and the town coming together and learning to accept and understand people with differences. Just like Wasson."
Heads nod in agreement.
"I think that the most important line of the play is, 'What's right is right,'" says senior Andrea Tolan. "This play is about how everyone has views, and how everyone's views are right to them. What's important is finding that middle ground."
Vogel looks around the room as her students talk, tears welling in her eyes.
"Don't worry," she says, laughing, "this happens like 50 times a day when I think about how far we have come.
"A lot of these tears are from joy and some of them are from pain. I think that through this play, we all feel like we are peeling layers and layers off of ourselves."