When students at Lawrence High School stage the play "The Laramie Project" this week, they say they'll be exploring themes of hate and intolerance, not promoting a homosexual lifestyle.
But that's not the way one of the play's characters sees it. Topeka pastor Fred Phelps has promised that his family of followers will be outside the school protesting.
"Just the fact that (Phelps and his followers) are coming to a high school production shows how low he can get," said Laura Parkinson, an LHS junior who plays five characters in "The Laramie Project." "But for our show it's just going to provide more publicity, if there can be a good thing coming."
She said some students in the school's Gay-Straight Alliance had considered mounting a counterprotest but that teachers were advising students to ignore the Phelpses as much as possible.
Nineteen LHS students are in the school's winter play, which is about the 1998 killing of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.
The gay University of Wyoming student was lured from a bar, kidnapped, tied to a fence in cold weather and beaten with the butt of a gun. Two men are serving life in prison for the murder, which was categorized as a hate crime.
Phelps taunted gays outside Shepard's funeral and thus became a character in "The Laramie Project."
Now Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church is calling the LHS production a "propaganda play and recruiting tool for seducing kids to lives of sin, shame, disease, misery, death and Hell," the church said in a press release.
The church also said God hated LHS students, teachers and administrators.
The script for the play comes from more than 200 interviews that playwright Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project conducted in Laramie.
The play is an account of the reactions in Laramie to Shepard's murder, said Kim O'Brien, a teacher of English and theater at LHS and the play's director.
"It turned their town upside down," O'Brien said. "This was just a small town out in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness, basically. It put them under the microscope nationally -- well, not only nationally, but worldwide. Not only did they have to deal with the reality of this very gruesome crime happening in their midst, they had to deal with all this outside pressure of the media."
O'Brien said she didn't know how many advance tickets had been sold, but that interest in the show was running higher than is normal for the school's productions. The auditorium seats 250, but usually pulls only about 50 people per performance, she said.
|When: 7 p.m. today and ThursdayWhere: Lawrence High SchoolTickets: $5 for adults, $3 for high school students and younger.|
The production comes a week after the Kansas House approved a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and civil unions for gays. Kansans will vote on the amendment April 5.
It's coincidence that the LHS play follows so closely on the heels of the amendment's approval, O'Brien said. She chose the play in December.
A Lawrence-based gay and lesbian organization, NetworQ, hopes to raise money through the Westboro Baptist group's expected appearance.
People can pledge to pay money for each minute Phelps and his sympathizers protest at LHS, said Kim Kreicker, of Lawrence. The money will go toward the school's Gay-Straight Alliance.
Lawrence Police will be at the high school for "The Laramie Project," just as they are for other school events, Sgt. Dan Ward said. He declined to say whether extra officers were being assigned.
"We hope the school will be able to express their constitutional rights as well as Mr. Phelps and his party," Ward said.
"The play is really about accepting people's differences," Parkinson said. "It's not about the gay issue at all -- it's about hate and people's reactions to it. It's taught me to be accepting of people's differences."