Review: Deaf Austin Theatre's The Laramie Project

Enhanced American Sign Language adds depth, dimension to “testimony’s ambitious sister”

Amelia Hensley as policewoman Reggie Fluty in Deaf Austin Theatre's The Laramie Project (Photo by Tate Tullier Photography)

Docudramas – plays whose theatrical narratives and cast of characters are built from historical and archival materials – have been called "testimony's ambitious sister" by the late South African Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu. And for good reason. They give voice to ordinary people who have been placed in extraordinary, often atrocious circumstances, with the intention of making sure those atrocities are never forgotten or ever repeated.

Moisés Kaufman's docudrama The Laramie Project, first produced in 2000 and currently being staged by Deaf Austin Theatre, is a deeply disturbing, highly complex portrait of a small community's response to the murder of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming when, in 1998, he was robbed, brutally beaten, and left for dead while tied to a cattle fence on the high prairie outskirts of Laramie. The play draws on hundreds of interviews with local folk, journal entries by members of the Tectonic Theater Project who conducted the interviews and helped develop this play, and published news reports about this hate crime.

The work unfolds like a film documentary, with its series of short scenes – moments, really – that accumulate to form a moving piece of storytelling that asks audiences to confront society's injustices, prejudices, and harsh brutalities while acknowledging that all those involved – perpetrators, victims, and onlookers – must continue to live side by side.

A moderate-sized troupe of very talented Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors (Kailyn Aaron-Lozano, Joey Antonio, Joey Caverly, Brian Cheslik, Jules Dameron, Taylor Flanagan, Leila Hanaumi, Ashlea Hayes, Dickie Hearts, Amelia Hensley, Justin Jackerson, Krissy Lemon, Heba Toulan, and Saul Lopez) portray more than 60 characters. Matthew Shepard is not one of them, for his absence is a particularly poignant dramatic device.

Everything takes place amidst bare-bones scenic design (Jules Dameron) consisting of two dramatically lit (Jacqueline Sindelar) two-tiered platforms in front of a huge projection screen displaying photographs (Bus Door Films) that help define the play's time and place. Every actor performs with American Sign Language, which is supplemented with spoken words delivered by translators onstage and in the wings and English subtitles provided on the screen.

On opening night, recurring technical problems caused short lapses in the synchrony between ASL, spoken, and projected dialogue. It mattered little thanks to director Dameron's otherwise creative vision, fluid staging, and efficient traffic control, as well as designer Kailyn Aaron-Lozano's eye for highly expressive signing styles. Actors used different speeds, handshapes, body movements, and linguistic markers to differentiate and add depth and dimension to characters, which was mesmerizing.

This staging is the first professional production presented with ASL, driven by the company's desire to make this important play fully accessible to the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. And the timing of this staging couldn't be more appropriate. Docudramas tend to surface when and where they are needed most, and – while the constructs and practice of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression are sadly evergreen and applicable to a wide range of minority groups, including the Deaf – the current political climate of Texas, with its influx of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, makes Matthew Shepard's story particularly reverberant.

Go see this powerful live stage production. But if you can't, it will be filmed and livestreamed through Broadway on Demand on October 12, 2023, in honor of the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard.

Deaf Austin Theatre's The Laramie Project

Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale #122, 512/840-1804
Through Sept. 16.
Running time: 3 hrs.

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The Laramie Project, Deaf Austin Theatre, Jules Dameron, American Sign Language

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