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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Local high school students take risk with 'Laramie'
by Steven Chaitman
2012-02-15

This article shared 4860 times since Wed Feb 15, 2012
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They were supposed to do A Midsummer Night's Dream—something light, something fun to perform. It would also be a production elementary school kids could come see, and a show that would make the school a bit of money.

However, Lisa Ehrlich-Menard, drama director at Curie Metro High School, 4959 S. Archer Ave., had had enough of the status quo. She usually confined the study of social issues theatre to the classroom, but decided it was time to challenge her Drama III students, and to make them look at real issues from the outside and then channel them into performance. So she chose The Laramie Project.

"I think I'm just getting tired," said Ehrlich-Menard, who has taught at Curie for six years. "I'm getting tired of not giving these teenagers power, letting them understand the power that they should feel they have and that their voice does matter, they can make a difference and they can do it through the arts when everybody is telling them that the arts don't necessarily matter and the arts are not going to get you anywhere."

Ehrlich-Menard wasn't worried about getting fired for choosing a play centered on gay issues and hate; that's not a problem at Curie. The difficulty is the administration's attitude toward the arts, which she described as "indifferent."

"They'll tell us, 'It's great that you're doing that,' but they never find out what we're doing," she said.

Instead, it was the reaction of the students coming to see the designated school performance that Ehrlich-Menard feared the most. She wrote letters to teachers, who could choose whether to bring their students, and warned them that some kids might laugh at inappropriate moments or say obnoxious, disruptive things. She also gave them study guides so that the students would be prepared for what they were seeing.

Whether it was the advance notice or the power of the production itself, it worked.

"[The students in the audience] were amazing," Ehrlich-Menard said. "The audience was silent, which we never get—ever."

Since it debuted in 2000, The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, has become a paragon of social justice theatre and a staple of high school drama repertoire. However, for the students of Curie, the dramatic recounting of the brutal 1998 beating and eventual death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. was a discovery, and a powerful one at that.

A magnet school in Archer Heights with a student population that includes large percentages of Latino and Black students, Curie's racial lines are apparent every day, but issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed with more rarity. As such, many of the students in the play realized the importance of their production.

Curie senior Jocelyn Diaz said that, before working on this play, she did not realize how big the scope of LGBT issues was.

"I think that this play was really hard to put on because I don't think a lot of people can grasp the idea of homosexuality," Diaz said. "I think we all need to work really hard to show people that it's there and they need to acknowledge it. That's the way our society is."

A group of the students, all of whom are seniors, came to the regular post-show hangout restaurant after the Feb. 2 performance, but the usual camaraderie of high school theatre kids was distinctly absent, the play's somberness following them across the street. Putting on The Laramie Project clearly takes every ounce of their strength, and it becomes all too easy to get emotional. For many of the students, it's also personal, and that can really bring on the tears.

A number of them woefully admitted to having used phrases like "that's so gay" or "you're so gay," and now understand how those words can hurt—and it bothers them.

"When [my brother] came out I didn't realize how much [saying those phrases] would hurt him until one day we were downtown and some guy called him a faggot," said student Nileen Cancel. "For somebody to say that to my own brother … I didn't like it. I love him so much and I think about what they did to Matthew… if something were to happen to my brother because he was gay, I couldn't handle it."

Eric Ayala discovered firsthand how his words could hurt when he learned that his cousin had told everyone else in his family that he was gay except for him.

"[My cousin] said that he hears the way I was talking to other people and he didn't like that and he didn't want me judging him," Ayala said. "So that made me think: he's right, I shouldn't be judging people—I'm no one to judge anybody. Saying stuff like that is not going to do anything; it's not going to make them change. It's just going to hurt them."

Deanna Aguilera, an out lesbian student, has two older siblings who are also openly gay. She has long been involved in LGBT activism, including her school's gay-straight alliance, and being in the play reminded her of the difference she can make.

"The fact that I got to be in something like this and show an audience that this is going on and it should be changed felt amazing," Aguilera said.

After all the students shared their initial reflections on the production, Ehrlich-Menard took the opportunity to remind the teens of exactly how much of a difference they already made. She said a number of teachers have thanked her personally and for her bravery in putting on "Laramie."

"Some of you didn't realize how big of a deal [this play] would end up being," she told them. "And I just hope this makes you realize the transformative power that theatre can have, which is what I've been trying to do for the last three years. It can be fun, but you can use it."

Ehrlich-Menard has seen tremendous growth in her students since beginning work on The Laramie Project. They go on Facebook and share videos related to "Laramie" and other LGBT fronts.

"[They've learned] that hey aren't just passive consumers, that they also have ability to affect people and make difference and say something," she said. "They did not feel that before. Most high school kids don't feel that way. They are now so much more vocal about things."

Some of that growth has been intensely personal. Ehrlich-Menard said she's extremely proud of one student in particular who felt strongly against homosexuality before the play, but has since become more tolerant, now at least seeing it as a choice that should be accepted.

The play has also caught the attention of the Curie administration. Two, including the principal, attended part of the final performance on Feb. 4.

Now Ehrlich-Menard faces the challenge of making sure this big step is just the beginning for her students.

"I don't want them to forget that how they are on a daily basis speaks volumes as well as putting on a big piece once," she said. "I don't want this to be over because the play is over."

The class hopes to attend Redtwist Theatre's production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which opens in March. Judy Shepard will be in town for the March 10 performance benefiting the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Ehrlich-Menard said she hopes Shepard might be available to talk with the students. She felt it would be a meaningful way to cap off a socially significant production and, more importantly, what has been an unforgettable experience for her students.


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