by Vonecia Carswell, The Jersey Journal
High Tech High School drama students are opening their hearts to relive one of the most infamous hate crimes in U.S. history.
"The Laramie Project," which tells the story of slain University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was gay, opened last night at the North Bergen school's Black Box Theater, 2000 85th St. It will continue today and Saturday.
The 1998 case still rings a bell almost 15 years later as bullying remains a prime concern in schools.
"We 're very lucky at this school, but at a lot of schools, there's a lot of bullying and harassing," said Deborah Artes, head of the drama department. "I hope it strengthens our school community, and I hope each kid feels a little more empowered to be who they are."
Thirty-five students will replay 60 real-life characters from the original 2000 production by Moisés Kaufman.
"I was definitely nervous about it because this is one of the plays that if you do it wrong, it can come off as very offensive," said Deborah Osborn, 18, who's portraying four characters. Three of them are male.
The students have been practicing the roles since September as part of their yearlong pre-college training program, Artes said. The six months have given them a chance to present the characters as accurately as possible, she said.
In addition to individual research and watching other professional performances of the production, the students joined online communities related to the project. Artes is aware that it is a sensitive topic and said all school administrators were on board, but she did make minor adjustments.
"I softened it lightly. I took out curse words, those kind of things," she said. "These are high school kids and I don't think they should be cursing. I made it slightly more palatable for our audience without at all changing the meaning."
Though there's some risk-taking, Artes said, she believes the performance will help students dig into their sense of humanity and get them ready for the real world.
"I was a little worried. I didn't know how people would react," said Patrick McClellance, 17. "But it turned out to be really exciting."
There will be another performance today at 3 p.m. with $5 admission and tomorrow at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at hthsdrama.org.
"I really don't expect (the audience) to leave and start preaching about equality, but I just want them to think," McClellance added. "If they leave and don't have a second thought about it, then we didn't do our job."
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