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Catholic Education

‘Defeating hate’ with a play about a killing

Oakland, Calif.

When Dennis Kohles, theatrical director at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., decided to stage “The Laramie Project,” a play based on the 1998 hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student, he never guessed that the real-life plot would repeat itself. But it did. Last fall, Laramie, Wyo., came to Northern California.

Kohles and his cast were barely into rehearsals when, one Monday morning, a stream of invective poured into the Oakland school -- via the school fax machine. A minister by the name of Fred Phelps from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., threatened to picket both O’Dowd and nearby Newark High School, which was also producing the play. The kids knew that name quite well. Especially Gregory Manley, a 17-year-old student. Phelps is a character in “The Laramie Project.” Manley was playing him.

Phelps, who demonstrated at Matt Shepard’s funeral, claims that God sends all gays to hell and condemns churches and other institutions that take a more tolerant, understanding view of homosexuality. His actions are powerfully portrayed in the play. One of his most chilling lines is “God’s hatred is good.”

The prospect of his showing up for opening night was only the beginning. Days later, on Oct. 3, the O’Dowd cast was stunned by another part of history repeating itself, once more, right where they lived.

Eddie Araujo, a 17-year-old transgendered youth who had called himself Gwen, was murdered in the nearby community of Newark. Three young men have since been accused of beating and strangling Araujo to death at a party after discovering he was male. They dumped his body into a shallow grave, where it was found several weeks later.

“I couldn’t believe it could happen here,” said Graham Patzner, 15. Patzner played the role of Russell Henderson, one of Shepard’s killers; Henderson and another Laramie roofer brutally beat up Shepard and tied him to a rail fence in a remote field outside town. Shepard died five days later in a local hospital.

Until Patzner had immersed himself in Moise Kaufman’s powerful drama about the quiet community torn apart by the crime, the sophomore said he hadn’t been aware of “so much hate in the world.” Then the faxes started coming again. Phelps said he would show up at St. Edward’s Catholic Church the day of Eddie Gwen Araujo’s funeral -- the same weekend as the O’Dowd play.

Homophobic hatred linked with religious hatred -- a double whammy in one large package. But the O’Dowd cast met it head on. They were not intimidated.

“These kids were just incredible. I was so proud of them,” said director Kohles. Arajau’s killing and the pickets “made it 10 times more important to put this play on, to get the word out about intolerance,” said Jamie Sharp, a 15-year-old sophomore who played three roles, including a Muslim woman who is a voice of tolerance in the town.

Trevor Moppin, a 14-year-old freshman cast as the killers’ sentencing judge, said, “The only way to keep defeating hate is to do plays like this.”

Moppin said he wonders what happened in the life of Fred Phelps to make him so homophobic. But he thinks there still must be a spark of compassion hidden in the minister somewhere.

In looking back on his role as Phelps, Manley said the role “was a great challenge. Fred Phelps is such an extreme character, it’s hard not to make him into a stereotype. But when I thought about it, I realized his message comes across without the stereotype.” Manley said he was puzzled how the minister “gets so many people to follow him.”

Katelyn Simons, a 17-year-old senior, said she had a difficult time getting into the role of Kristen Price, the homophobic girlfriend of Aaron McKinney, one of the murderers. “It was really hard to portray somebody that hateful.”

Simons was horrified by Araujo’s murder and angered by Phelps’ intent to make trouble in the Bay area, but said she was not intimidated. She said she gave the play her “best shot.”

When Alice Davis, 15-year-old sophomore, heard about Araujo’s death, she saw it as a “wake up call.” Hate is not a matter of geography, she reflected. “It is everybody’s problem.” Davis played Reggie Fluty, the police officer who is called to the scene of the crime.

Andrew Cholerton, a 17-year old senior who played a hospital CEO, shook his head in astonishment at “how some people have so much energy to kill other people.”

No one was more shocked by the angry faxes and Eddie Gwen Araujo’s slaying than the play’s director.

“I guess I’ve lived in the East Bay too long,” said Kohles, a lifetime Oakland resident and O‘Dowd alumnus. “Our kids are very open and mature, more like college students. Some of them have gay relatives. And our religion classes here teach the kids to learn how to do a good discernment of tolerance and how people differ,” said Kohles, who remembers himself at their age as “naive.”

Last year he assigned “The Laramie Project,” for class reading to find out if the teens would like to consider it for a production.

“Our criteria has always been, ‘Let’s do good theater,’ ” he said.

Besides Kohles, the school has two drama teachers and eight theater classes with more than 100 students enrolled.

“Quite frankly, I thought there would be more controversy over our current play,” said Kohles. Which is? “ ‘A Chorus Line.’ It’s a little racy here and there, but we don’t shy away from such plays. We make sure we do them with respect and good taste.”

The East Bay community knows that very well. Supporters circled around O’Dowd last fall, as opening night approached. Several churches, including an interfaith group, purchased several blocks of tickets. The house was sold out for all four performances.

O’Dowd’s student community affirmed the cast as well. Members of the Gay-Straight Alliance sponsored a “protest-a-thon” to collect money for every minute Phelps spoke, with the proceeds going to gay rights organizations.

On the weekend of the play, about two-dozen people from the Gay-Straight Alliance and church groups gathered at the school entrance to meet Phelps.

As it turned out, the preacher was a no-show. But he sent members of his family and his church to the second performance, said Kohles.

“All in all, it was pretty mild. O’Dowd supporters proved a pretty positive contrast to their anti-whatever agendas,” said the director.

Sharon Abercrombie is a free-lance writer who lives in Oakland.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003