By George Kevin Jordan, AFRO Staff Writer

In 1998 Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten, tortured and left to die on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. After he died, there was a vigil, national outrage and a call for legal action against hate crimes.

In 2000 “The Laramie Project,” a play written by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, premiered.  The play uses was it is called verbatim theatre, taking direct quotes from actual interviews with people from the area, journal entries and news reports.

It was instantly a cultural lightning rod, a hit with people across the country including students and schools.  The play was also protested by some church groups. Mr. Shepard, the play and the moment left its mark on history.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts Theatre Department students are preparing for their production of “The Laramie Project” April 11-13. (Courtesy Photo)

Students at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Theatre Department hope to recreate that moment and spark more conversation about hate crimes when they present “The Laramie Project,” in a limited engagement April 11 – 13.

“We believe we must commit to being the best version of ourselves wherever life takes us and we hope “The Laramie Project” will inspire that,” said Ken Johnson, chair of the Theatre Department. “Our mission is to leave the audience wondering how they could improve their own communities, take responsibility and enact change in their daily lives.”

“Personally being in The Laramie Project is important to me because I’m bisexual and being being able to address such a topic and a lot of my peers are also in the LGBTQIA+ community so being able to address something like hate crime is so important,” said Evelyn Wohlbier, a 17-year-old student at DESA, who will be in the play.

Wohlbier, who read the play last year, had an immediate reaction to the work saying, “I read it and cried. I hadn’t known about it before. I was so surprised I hadn’t heard about it before. I am really glad we are able to do it.”

Theatre department senior Devyn Akers, 18, had a similar reaction.

“When I first read about it I was saying, ‘there’s so many hate crimes going on that we don’t even these victims names,’” Akers said. “And I never knew about Matthew Shepard and what was going on. I never even knew Laramie, Wyoming existed. It’s just crazy to me how so many unsung heroes… and we never hear of theses things.

“It’s very important that we’re doing this play and giving grace to Matthew’s name and all others whose names have not been said.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigations defines a hate crime as:  “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

According to data collected by the FBI in 2017, 16,149 law enforcement agencies participated in the Hate Crime Statistics Program. Of these agencies, 2,040 reported 7,175 hate crime incidents involving 8,437 offenses.

These numbers are up from the the previous year where 15,254 law enforcement agencies participated in the Hate Crime Statistics Program. Of these agencies, 1,776 reported 6,121 hate crime incidents involving 7,321 offenses, according to the report.

“The Laramie Project” runs April 11-12 at 7:30pm and April 13 at 2:00pm. Tickets are $10-$35 and can be purchased online at ellingtonschool.org/box-office/.  Performances take place in the newly renovated Ellington Theatre, 3500 R St, N.W., Washington, DC 20007.