By Bryce Cox
On May 15, 1988, Richard F. Reihl, a 33 year old gay man, was robbed beaten to death by high schoolers Sean G. Burke (19) and Marcos J. Perez (17), at his Wethersfield home, an event so significant that there was a piece on it in the New York Times.
Ten years later, in Laramie Wyoming, 21 year old Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten to death by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The death of Matthew Shepard changed America, shaping the way communities responded to hate speech and LGBTQ rights. The impact, while great on a national level, was astronomical on the town of Laramie, just as it was on Wethersfield over twenty eight years ago. We today, being high schoolers in a generation where we haven’t witnessed the effect of these hate crimes first hand, often overlook their importance and significance.
To mark the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, Wethersfield High School’s drama program performed the Laramie Project.
The intensity and extremities of the play made it difficult to perform, especially due to the necessity of playing severely contrasting roles, as well as roles that contradict personal beliefs and values. Scotty Giannini, who played Reverend Fred Phelps among other roles, described the difficulty of the role; “[The reverend was] a horrible person. I have to say things I don’t believe in, it’s hard to put on a character that’s nothing like me.” Kayla Platania, who played Shannon, a friend of one of the killers, and Trish Steger, someone who personally knew Matthew, talked about the difficulties of playing two completely different characters, saying, “It’s easy when they’re like you, but it’s hard when it goes against personal and character beliefs. It’s difficult to play different characters- you have to have a different attitude about understanding.”
The hard thing for viewers, and even performers, to completely understand and accept is the fact that this isn’t just your typical high school production with characters that exist solely on stage. It is a production with characters that lived and breathed, characters who first handedly witnessed the horrors of the events. “This actually happened,” said Angelica Velez, “things being said were actually said, it’s not fictional.”
As a topic that is continually reevaluated, this performance strikes deep, both in the hearts of those around to witness the impact of the events, and those who witness it through others, such as the actors in the WHS performance. The significance is carried through generations, and that’s what makes this event hard to forget; it’s the fact that it refuses to be forgotten.
The question of impact remains with any event of this magnitude, and just as the people of Laramie were effected in 1998, and the people of Wethersfield in 1988, members of the Wethersfield community were effected again in 2018, leaving us to reflect over how we handle hate in our own lives, how we ourselves use hateful language and how we handle being the recipients of hate speech. We are not a community devoid of imperfections and violence. At this point in time we have to start to ask ourselves how these actions not only affect us as individuals, but as a community.
In light of Matthew Shepard’s death, Laramie was put under the spotlight as a town that condoned violence and hate crimes, because it was a little known mid western town and because the brutality of the hate crime. The play itself doesn’t focus on the specific events of Matthew Shepard’s life and death, but how the community handled the aftermath. Jeff Roets, a teacher who put together the production, said he kept his actors on stage throughout the entirety of the performance to show how everyone in the community was involved and effected, the point of keeping them on stage throughout the whole show to keep them “always in the moment”.
After an event like the death of Matthew Shepard and Richard Reihl, the communities representation changes. The question of growth and newfound understanding is then brought into play. Since the death of Matthew Shepard, how have we changed as a nation? Since the death of Richard Reihl, how have we changed as a town? Since the WHS Laramie performance, how have we changed as a community? Whether or not you were a performer or a viewer, “the characters reveal a new part of you, you have to think about how you and the character would react to these things” (Jack O’Leary). We have to remember that these are not fictitious occurrences we can brush away, but reality that strikes deep in its impact and refusal to be forgotten. The Laramie Project is an example of terrible things that happen in the world and how we, as a community, learn to grow from our mistakes and in our way of understanding.
Written, edited, and produced by Wethersfield High School students, covering all news and events.