School play, protest serve up lessons for life

The Boston Globe

October 28, 2010 Thursday

BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 750 words

Framingham High School’s drama director says that when she planned to produce “The Laramie Project,” she knew she was asking a lot of the community. The play examines the response in Laramie, Wyo., to the 1998 torture and murder of a 21-year-old gay man, Matthew Shepard.

But the ante was upped when Donna Wresinski learned the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church is planning to picket her production, forcing the Framingham community to articulate a response.

“We don’t want this to be about the Westboro Baptist Church,” she said. “Because you’re looking to answer hate, you have to come up with a positive message. When there’s that much power of hate, you have to find the power of love.”

The church announced in October on its website a picket schedule for “The Laramie Project” that includes Texas, Maine, Maryland, Lowell, and Framingham. The group plans to picket the Dec. 4 production.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of church leader Fred Phelps Sr., said in an interview that protesters will be there. Phelps-Roper said she doesn’t care if people label the Westboro Baptist Church a hate group as long as they understand the group’s message: that homosexuality is a sin.

“I say you may not talk about God without talking about his hatred,” she said.

“What we want to happen is for these young people at these schools who have been lied to all their lives to see these words and realize that they’ve been lied to all their lives,” said Phelps-Roper, who lives in Topeka, Kan., with nine of her 11 children.

Phelps-Roper said church members just returned from a series of protests in Idaho and Washington. Members travel to locations depending on their availability, she said.

“`The Laramie Project’ is like weeds all over the country,” said Phelps-Roper.

Wresinski and Framingham High School Principal Mike Welch said they haven’t mapped out a complete response yet, though the high school will hold after-school forums to discuss topics surrounding the play.

Community members typically hold counter-protests in anticipation of the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper said church members like it when counter-protesters come out.

“It’s so much easier to talk to people who are right in front of you than to chase people down and get them to see the signs in a more undisciplined fashion,” said Phelps-Roper. “For every one you see standing [in counter-protest], there’s a support system for that person. Put a multiplier on that, and now you’re talking. They’re weighing in on these doctrines of Christ.”

Wresinski said that from the get-go, she envisioned “The Laramie Project” including the whole community. For the first time during her nine-year tenure at Framingham High School, she held an open casting call for all Framingham residents. Eighty-three people responded: 53 high schoolers and 30 adults, including one man in his 80s.

She acknowledges that the play is difficult. It’s not “The Sound of Music” or “The Wizard of Oz.” But she said that’s not what theater is supposed to be, and Welch agreed with her.

“He totally trusted me and said, `What’s theater if it doesn’t ruffle a few feathers?,’ ” she said.

Welch said the Westboro Baptist Church’s planned protest, whether carried out or not, provides a teachable moment.

“It’s another opportunity to provide education not only to the kids, but to the community,” said Welch. “The issue of human rights and individual rights versus First Amendment rights is fascinating.”

The Westboro Baptist Church is at the center of a Supreme Court case that will decide whether the protests it stages at military funerals are protected as free speech.

In 2005, protesters from the church said they would picket at a Newton South High School production of the play, but didn’t show up.

But in 2007, Acton-Boxborough High School’s production of “The Laramie Project” brought out a handful of Westboro Baptist Church members.

To both Welch and Wresinski, whether the group shows up is beside the point. They said the dialogue it’s creating will make the community’s message of acceptance and love of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender even more powerful and meaningful.

“There are going to be people who think we should do `Charlie Brown,’ who think `The Laramie Project’ has no place in public education,” said Wresinski. “The best way to respond to this is to do the best play you can possibly do. We put this out in the world to ask people to think.”

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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