OHHS students bring passion project to Whidbey Playhouse

— Created March 6, 2024 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

“The Laramie Project” is not a feel-good play. It is many things at once. It is frank. It is real. It is sometimes uncomfortable. It is passionate. It is heart-breaking. It is important. It is the kind of theater that can allow hard conversations to happen. It is a play that lets us examine how, as a society, we treat one another, and whether we have more work to do.

Kathy Reed/Whidbey Weekly
Reporters surround a hospital official, depicting part of the media frenzy that occurred following the 1998 hate crime against 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who later died from his injuries. The scene is part of “The Laramie Project” a limited, three-night production opening Friday at the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor. Pictured from left are: Dana Rivo, Hadley McCulloch, Graham Ray, Eclipse Garrett, Ashley Mendoza, Ethan Johnson and Grace Jones.

It is also the latest production of the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor, with a limited, three-night run at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Due to its subject matter and language, this play is not suitable for young children – parents should use discretion. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased online at whidbeyplayhouse.com.

“The Laramie Project” is an American play written in 2000 by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. It is a docu-drama, based on hundreds of interviews conducted by Kaufman and fellow theater group members with residents in and around Laramie, Wyo., following the murder of gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, in 1998. Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were charged with Shepard’s murder and are both serving two consecutive life sentences for the hate crime.

The play is directed for the Playhouse by Shelby Montoya. The cast, all of whom play multiple roles, is almost entirely made up of students from the Oak Harbor High School Drama Club, who wanted to perform the play at the high school after seeing it at a drama festival last year. However, the school’s principal refused to allow the group to perform it at the school.

“This upset the students, especially because this high school has performed shows like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘All My Sons,’ and ‘Radium Girls,’ just to name a few,” said Montoya. “Those shows included the dark topics of suicide, racism, and radium poisoning. So, to say that the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard was too much for their school was a slap in the face to them. They took the matter to the school board and unfortunately were told [the board] could not force the principal to let them perform the show.

Kathy Reed/Whidbey Weekly
 “The Laramie Project” at Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor shares the real-life reactions from members of the community in Laramie, Wyo., following the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Above, actor Matt Montoya carries a sign like those carried by protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

“Immediately after hearing about this, Matt Montoya, my father, called me and said, ‘What are we going to do?’” she continued. “I am the children’s director at the Whidbey Playhouse and have worked with these same students on previous productions and I was in the drama program when I was in high school. I told my dad that I thought we could get our local theater to let the kids perform the show there; we just needed a donor for the rights. He immediately jumped on the opportunity and offered to pay for the rights for as many performances as we could do.”

“I wanted to do this for these high schoolers,” said Matt Montoya, the only non-student in the cast. “These young adults are the future, and they did everything they could to perform this show at the high school. Their passion about the subject matter is what made me want to help put this show on for them. It has been incredibly rewarding to work with these students. We all stand behind the purpose and meaning of this show.” 

This production is not part of the regular Playhouse season; rehearsals and performances have been worked in between two other shows. Whidbey Weekly attended a rehearsal last Friday, along with several members of the Oak Harbor Public Schools’ board and administration. The district provided the following response via email when asked about the situation.

“The Oak Harbor Public Schools prioritizes fostering a dialogue that promotes healthy and safe learning environments for each and every student. Through student voice and input, we can continue to improve and cultivate positive school cultures that empower our youth to have confidence to succeed in our schools and in life. District and school administrators met with the students throughout the decision-making process.”

Kathy Reed/Whidbey Weekly
Graham Ray, left, and Ethan Johnson play Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men who killed Matthew Shepard in 1998 in “The Laramie Project,” on stage Friday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor.

Those cast members who responded to questions all said they are pleased to be able to share the play and its message with the greater Oak Harbor community.

“This is an important play for people to see/hear as it tells a really important story,” said Adriana Froman. “The significance of a community coming together regardless of their differences, trying to make change and prevent an event like this from ever happening again. It reminds the audience that we all come from many different backgrounds and cultures and it is useful that we take this into account and look beyond our own personal views.”

“I decided to be a part of this production because I knew it was the right thing to do,” said “Ray” Graham Ray. “It addresses the critical problems in our society that affect too many people for it to be ignored. We live in a world where people are murdered for things they can’t control and living as themselves, and being part of this show makes me feel like I’m part of the solution.”

Other cast members drew comparisons between Laramie and Oak Harbor. 

“Both are tightly knit towns where issues are dealt with more internally rather than on a larger scale,” said Void Gibson, who joins the cast while home on spring break from college in Missouri. “At times Oak Harbor can be very isolated but everyone has similar experiences and it can be very jarring (although important) when we’re reminded of the world and people that exist just outside of Whidbey.

Kathy Reed/Whidbey Weekly
“The Laramie Project” features a cast of mostly students from Oak Harbor High School, who wanted to produce the play at the school but were not allowed. The play is a docu-drama and is based on real-life interviews conducted by members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Cast members like Grace Jones, above, play multiple roles in the limited run play at the Whidbey Playhouse

“Sometimes that reminder can appear as the constant inflow of Navy families coming to live here for a few years before being sent somewhere else but there are times when we need something like this,” they continued. “Something that reminds us the hurt and hate can build beneath the surface if we aren’t careful and if we aren’t doing our best to make sure that we’re welcoming of unfamiliar people or ideas. I think at its core, what people should take from ‘Laramie’ is the importance of respect and dignity towards your fellow person, even if you do or don’t agree with every aspect of them.”

“I believe it is important for people to see this show and hear the message it gives, because ‘The Laramie Project’ unveils the hate and homophobia that every small town has, including our own,” said Ethan Johnson. “The show provides the experience and outcome of what comes from hate. Everyone should know how that feels to others. I had an immediate, strong reaction towards the play and story. Being a young gay man, as well as having an older brother who is gay, I felt such a surreal connection to the show. After watching, I knew that I had to get this show onto a stage, and to tell this story to Whidbey Island.”

Despite being based on a horrendous event, cast members said the play offers a path forward, a message of love and hope.

“‘The Laramie Project’ shows how this terrible act was able to bring together so many people regardless of sexual orientation, religion, personal beliefs, etc.,” said Ashley Mendoza. “A large amount people have lost their lives due to how much hate people hold in themselves. It’s very important that people understand the grief and pain it can cause to many. I firmly believe that this show is a huge eye opener to why people should fight against hate and discrimination.”

Cast members of “The Laramie Project” play multiple roles in this fact-based production running Friday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Whidbey Playhouse. Pictured above is Adriana Froman.

“This play reveals the subtleties and nuances within a real-life horror story,” said Eclipse Garrett. “It allows the audience to experience every possible point of view within a tight-knit community in rural America. It’s important for people to realize not only the truth of what hatred can do to a person or a town, but what love can do. Take a good dose of unyielding, undying love, keep an open mind, and empathy will come with time, as it must for everyone.”

“People should see this play,” said Ray. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t wanna get sad, or if it’s ‘not your cup of tea.’ People need to see this show so that shows like these aren’t necessary. The idea that everyone needs to love everyone should never be shocking or unheard of. No matter how you look at it, love should come first.” 

“The Laramie Project” opens at the Whidbey Playhouse Friday with a limited run through Sunday. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at whidbeyplayhouse.com.

“I think everyone needs to see this story,” said Shelby Montoya. “No matter their views, I think every single person in the world should see it. Honestly, it has taught me SO much. I have realized that America isn’t the big melting pot people want to say it is. There is still racism, homophobia, and all kinds of discrimination in our world and it’s really unfortunate. The change starts with us.”