"The Laramie Project"

March 2, 2007Duke Law News

Feb. 22, 2007

The Duke Law Drama Society will present three performances of “The Laramie Project,” produced and directed by and starring law students, on March 1-3, at 8:00 p.m., in the Brody Theater in Branson Hall on Duke’s East Campus.

Working from a script culled from interviews conducted after the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, nine student actors give voice to the diverse reactions of 60 residents of Laramie, Wyoming, where the crime occurred. A 21-year-old college student, Shepard was beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on a deserted road because he was gay. His two attackers are serving life sentences for the crime.

“One of the characters has a monologue that I find very poignant, reacting to others who say, ‘We’re not like this; it couldn’t have happened here,’” says director Sonja Ralston Elder, a second year law student who is also pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. “She says, ‘We are like this. We have to own and accept that it happened here before we can move on. The perpetrators are a part of our community and we have to accept that.’

“This play intersects law, policy, and culture, asking how far the law might be able to take us to get to a prejudice-free society, assuming we think bias against homosexuals is wrong. You really can’t legislate people’s feelings, but what can the law do?” Eight members of the cast and crew are exploring those questions further through a semester-long, student-led seminar on bias crimes, which are unique in their protection of groups, as opposed to individuals.

“We have been exploring their legal rationale and their enforcement, as well as the multiple goals of criminal law,” says Ralston Elder. “It’s not always about deterrence or retribution – the law also serves social and rhetorical purposes.” The group has also examined the political climate in Wyoming in the aftermath of Shepard’s murder when a bias crime bill failed to pass in the state legislature.

However serious its subject matter, “The Laramie Project” offers “a nice escape” from law school routine for its cast and crew, Ralston Elder says. “The Drama Society is one of the many experiences that sets Duke apart form other schools. It’s really about building a community around your life, recognizing that we are complete people, more than our grades. It recognizes that there is a person other than ‘just’ a law student inside us all.”

“The Laramie Project” is being presented as a benefit for the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) which helps students to finance otherwise unpaid legal internships serving the public interest. Donations to PILF will be collected at the door by way of admission.

For more information contact Sonja Ralson Elder at sonja.ralstonelder@law.duke.edu.