After a long and VERY successful run of the show, I’ve had time to realize what I’ll miss most about running The Laramie Project. This experience for me has been unique. I’ve never had to sit through a full show in the dark, on a headset, listening to actors in one ear and to the stage manager in the other. It’s a strange feeling. In effect, one has to create a funneling system, where the cues come from the actors on stage, but the “GO” comes from the stage manager on the catwalk nearby. On the one hand, you want to listen to the actors and to get engrossed in the story, but on the other is Don telling me to “Stand-by light cues 4 through 15.” There were times when it felt as though Don, Alex, and I had developed a techie hive-mind. Before Don could even fully call “GO,” Alex and I would spring into action, and as soon as the lights came up the actors would activate on stage. One gets a strange feeling of omnipotence in the tech booth above the stage. At times it felt as though my button click was what prompted the actors into action.
The other aspect that’s unique to being in the tech booth is the ability to watch the audience without their knowledge. As the run progressed, Alex and I both stopped focusing on the actors, and turned our attention to the audience instead. Our favorites were moms. Moms, as well as dads, were the ones that really, truly took to heart the responsibility we imparted on them as audience members. They seemed to always be the ones most “actively” witnessing the events of the story. Watching their reactions each night was incredibly inspiring, but also heartbreaking at the same time. Just as the actors on stage were invoking the people that were connected to the crime, the audience members, without knowing it, were invoking all the people affected by the brutal beating. Seeing their reactions immediately brought to mind Judy and Dennis Shepard, Marge Murray, Phil Dubois, Cathy Connolly, Rulon Stacey and all the other parents of Laramie that had to reevaluate their relationships with their children in light of such a heinous crime. For me, the story of Laramie became even more apparent in the faces of the audience members than it did in the hands of the actors. The actors were doing their jobs by including the audience in the witnessing, which made my experience of Laramie that much richer–again, a funneling system.
The strongest reaction came from our friend Jackrabbit, who took the time to drive all the way to Durham to see our production. From her previous posts, it seems that the media cacophony scene usually strikes her the hardest, but during our show she seemed to handle it ok. The really intense moment for her came during the Fred Phelps scene. As the protestors filed in with their “God hates fags” signs, Jackrabbit looked like she had a physical gag reflex and had to turn away for the rest of the scene until the angels walked in. She tried to look, but every time she peeked, I could see her recoil in disgust with a gasp of nausea. It was at this moment, that I realized how incredibly complacent I had gotten about the scene. Having seen it 7 or so times in a row, it lost its power for me. But seeing Jackrabbit’s reaction immediately brought back to mind all the video clips we watched of Fred Phelps and the fact that I had the exact same reaction seeing it for the first time. Thanks to Jackrabbit, I got to experience that piece of theater in its full effect once again, reminding me that the rest of the play was just as new and shocking to most audience members. I am very thankful to Jackrabbit for reminding me that we, at all costs, cannot get complacent about the story this play represents. Even though having heard it again and again it might get trite to us, it really isn’t something that we can drop just yet. It’s something that effects us today and it’s something that we HAVE to keep telling and retelling to people that haven’t heard it. We have to funnel it out.
A big DukeinLaramie welcome to Dan Ellison (Duke ’77), attorney-at-law, Instructor in Theater Studies, and faculty advisor for Hoof ‘n Horn. Dan has offered his legal expertise to discuss issues of censorship surrounding The Laramie Project. If you all are interested in finding out more about the legal terrain of creating, producing, and consuming performing arts, you should check out Daniel’s fall 2011 course: Legal Issues for the Performing Arts, TS 169S. In addition to discussions about obscenity and censorship, the course will explore, among other topics, discrimination and copyright issues–both of which intersect with censorship issues.
– Walt Whitman
Any theatrical performance or visual artwork that deals with gay issues still continues to raise eyebrows and is subject to censorship in many communities throughout the United States. Productions of The Laramie Project have been banned at numerous secondary schools, colleges and universities. As recently as March 2009 (and there are probably more recent examples as well), an Oklahoma public school teacher was forced to resign because of teaching The Laramie Project.
My discussion of censorship divides into three parts: government censorship, private censorship and self-censorship. The First Amendment is the starting point. The First Amendment only prohibits censorship by the government. “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech. . . [emphasis added].” (Through the 14th Amendment, this prohibition applies to the states and municipalities as well.) Be that as it may, courts have determined that, under certain circumstances, the government can make reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. [See the very recent March 2, 2011 Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to stage its anti-gay protests at military funerals.] There was no Maryland statute in place, at the time, restricting protests at funerals, so the issue of the constitutionality of a particular statute was not directly before the Court. Westboro Baptist Church is also infamous for going around the country protesting outside productions of The Laramie Project. They came to Durham in 2005 to protest the play’s production at the Durham School of the Arts.
Interestingly, obscene speech has been carved out as speech that is simply not protected at all by the First Amendment. The legal definition of “obscene” has changed over the years; furthermore, the determination of whether some particular speech is obscene has never been an exact science. My grandfather (Charles Marks, a NY judge) ruled in the early 1960s that the 1749 book, “Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” was obscene and therefore was banned in NY. The book is tame by today’s standards. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed my grandfather’s ruling – see the newspaper clipping that follows:
Of course my grandfather, whom I loved and respected, also warned me in 1972, not to go to Flamingo Park in Miami Beach, during the Republican & Democratic National Conventions, because “there were homos there.” He was from an era of very different standards and sensibilities. “Homosexuality” was still “the love that dare not speak its name.” At that time, homosexuality was defined as a psychological disorder and also illegal. It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses!
Defining obscenity, i.e. defining language that the government is authorized to prohibit, has been continuously problematic. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line, “I know it when I see it,” follows his sentiment that he could perhaps never intelligibly succeed in defining the kind of material he understood to be embraced within the shorthand description “hard-core pornography.”
Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that obscenity should indeed be excluded from First Amendment protection, First Amendment scholars and advocates worry most about the “chilling effect” of overly broad and vague statutes that attempt to define obscenity. If I am not sure that the play I’m writing is obscene (and if disseminating obscenity is a felony), I might choose to err on the side of caution, and change the text and/or plot of my play in order to avoid the issue of obscenity altogether. Similarly, if I am a publisher, I might choose not to publish a play that deals with sexual content, out of fear that it might be challenged as obscene. [Last year’s movie, “Howl,” based on the obscenity trial of publisher/beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (a UNC-CH alum, by the way), whose City Lights Books published Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “Howl,” provides a wonderful and mostly accurate account of that obscenity trial.]
Most states have obscenity statutes that are similar to North Carolina’s:
NC General Statute § 14-190.1. Obscene literature and exhibitions.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to intentionally disseminate obscenity. A person, firm or corporation disseminates obscenity within the meaning of this Article if he or it: (1) Sells, delivers or provides or offers or agrees to sell, deliver or provide any obscene writing, picture, record or other representation or embodiment of the obscene; or (2) Presents or directs an obscene play, dance or other performance orparticipates directly in that portion thereof which makes it obscene; or [emphasis added] (3) Publishes, exhibits or otherwise makes available anything obscene; or (4) Exhibits, presents, rents, sells, delivers or provides; or offers or agrees to exhibit, present, rent or to provide: any obscene still or motion picture, film, filmstrip, or projection slide, or sound recording, sound tape, or sound track, or any matter or material of whatever form which is a representation, embodiment, performance, or publication of the obscene.
(b) For purposes of this Article any material is obscene if: (1) The material depicts or describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct specifically defined by subsection (c) of this section; and (2) The average person applying contemporary community standards relating to the depiction or description of sexual matters would find that the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest in sex; and (3) The material lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value; and [emphasis added] (4) The material as used is not protected or privileged under the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of North Carolina.
(c) As used in this Article, “sexual conduct” means: (1) Vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse, whether actual or simulated, normal or perverted; or (2) Masturbation, excretory functions, or lewd exhibition of uncovered genitals; or (3) An act or condition that depicts torture, physical restraint by being fettered or bound, or flagellation of or by a nude person or a person clad in undergarments or in revealing or bizarre costume. (d) Obscenity shall be judged with reference to ordinary adults except that it shall be judged with reference to children or other especially susceptible audiences if it appears from the character of the material or the circumstances of its dissemination to be especially designed for or directed to such children or audiences. (e) It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to knowingly and intentionally create, buy, procure or possess obscene material with the purpose and intent of disseminating it unlawfully
It seems clear that The Laramie Project is not obscene under the NC statutory definition. Even if someone could argue that it lacks serious literary or artistic value (those values are subjective), it clearly has political value.
If it isn’t obscene, how can a public school (an arm of the government) have the authority to censor/ban The Laramie Project or other similar plays? I plan to address that question in my next blog post.
There are myriad ways in which The Laramie Project has become part of our national lexicon, but I’ll begin our semester’s discussion with a very recent example.
The mass shooting in Tuscon on January 8, 2011 claimed the lives of six and wounded thirteen others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D, AZ District 8). In the hours and days after, we would piece together the event — the heroism of those who died shielding others, the quick actions that prevented further fatalities and those that saved the injured, the motivations of the alleged gunman, the debate over how/if his actions were connected to a rise in heated and violent political rhetoric. As the initial shock turned into sadness, mourning, and reflection, there came the unwelcome news that the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to appear at the funerals, including that of the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.
Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is led by the Reverend Fred Phelps with a congregation made up mostly of his 13 children, grandchildren, and other extended family members. Founded in 1955, WBC came to national and international attention when they picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral in October 1998 and continued to visit Laramie during the prosecutions of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men convicted of Matthew’s murder. The group’s appearance in Laramie was part of their early 1990s campaign of protests at AIDS victims funerals, which had been localized primarily in and around Kansas.
Since The Laramie Project‘s positive reception and widespread production by high schools, colleges, professional and community theaters, WBC has followed the show across the US, picketing outside performances. In recent years they have (mostly) limited their Laramie Project protests to small colleges and high school productions of the show. They have pickets scheduled at two California high schools later this month.
In 2003, they expanded their activities to include protesting at funerals for veterans who have died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also select funerals of nationally prominent figures (the late Elizabeth Edwards, for example) or funerals that receive national attention (like those for the Tuscon victims) to siphon off some of the media spotlight in a continued effort to promote their extreme religious views regarding God’s violent punishments of America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
In response to WBC’s announcement, a small group of Tuscon citizens, headed by Christin Gilmer, immediately formed a Facebook group to prepare, in their words, “an Angel Action.” In recent years as WBC has garnered greater media attention, counter-protesters have come out to divert cameras and reporters away from the group’s presence at funerals and events. They usually stand in silence, with signs of support and kindness. These and the planned counter-protest in Tuscon are directly inspired by Romaine Patterson’s first “Angel Action” in Laramie. Romaine provides inspiration and details (Become_Angel) for groups wishing to replicate Angel Actions in their communities. I would also assert that the Tuscon group’s decision was facilitated by widespread knowledge of Romaine’s successful counter-protest of WBC through that event’s depiction in countless productions of the The Laramie Project.
Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), WBC called off all their Tuscon pickets in exchange for airtime on a nationally syndicated conservative commentator’s radio program. While the nation was spared another round of images from a WBC event, the fact that the group successfully negotiated a larger platform for their views potentially legitimizes their scare tactics, illustrating their growing (if still unpopular) influence over public discourse. But those are discussions for another post.
The Tuscon Angels still attended Christina Green’s funeral, lining the road to the service, reinforcing messages of peace and civility that have gained some traction the aftermath of this tragedy. I leave you with these images from Getty (photos 1 & 2) and Associated Press (photos 3 & 4) photographers who captured the scene: