Grandview Heights High School's fall play is all about tolerance.
"The Laramie Project" is a documentary-style play about the reaction in Laramie, Wyoming, to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who was killed because of his sexual identity.
But the play's theme extends beyond tolerance toward the LGBTQ community, said director April Olt.
"There's so much hate speech and divisiveness in our culture and media these days," she said. "We need to find a way for people with opposing viewpoints to come together for a discussion.
"Our take is not just: Why did this terrible thing happen to Matthew Shepard?" Olt said. "It's also: How do you have a positive conversation with someone you don't agree with?"
"The Laramie Project" is by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, who traveled to Laramie a few weeks after Shepard's murder. Its dialogue is drawn from interviews conducted by the theater company's members, news reports, courtroom transcripts and the journals of Tectonic Theater members.
All perspectives are presented, including local townspeople, Shepard's mother, the person who found Shepard tied to a fence beaten and unconscious, the chief investigating officer, the killers, ministers and the Rev. Fred Phelps, whose anti-gay group traveled to Laramie to protest at Shepard's funeral.
"One of the challenges for the cast is that they are portraying real people," Olt said. "Many of the people presented in the play are still alive. There isn't the chance to add your own take on a 'character' as you can in other plays."
Rehearsals have included discussions among the cast about the people they play, especially if they are playing someone who has opposite views from their own, she said.
"It's a little scary (for the cast and crew) because everything we are doing is based on real events and real people," said Kendal Ritchey, student director. "You have to be careful, because we feel a responsibility to present everyone as they really are."
Brad Jagers portrays Aaron McKinney, who was convicted of Shepard's murder.
"He's a murderer, but I'm trying to give him his voice," Jagers said. "I'm trying to portray him as he would himself, if he was able to be up there on the stage."
Although the events portrayed in "The Laramie Project" took place nearly two decades ago, the play resonates for students, said Sarah Anne Kauffman, whose portrayals include the mother of the officer who responded to the initial 911 call.
"It touches on a lot of issues that we all can relate to," she said. "It's a historic event, but the underlying issues are still around today."
"This is a very honest play," Ritchey said. "It doesn't sugarcoat things."
Olt said she approached district administrators and the school board before announcing "The Laramie Project" as the fall production.
"We wanted to make sure everyone was on board about doing this play," she said. "Everyone was really positive about it."
A community outreach event was held Oct. 5 to invite parents and community members to learn more about the play.
The event included monologues from the show, presentations by members of the high school's gay-straight alliance and information about area organizations, including Kaleidoscope Youth Center, BRAVO (Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization) and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network), that offer resources or information for the community, Olt said.
"We'll have information about those organizations at each of our shows," she said.
Kaleidoscope works "in partnership with young people to create safe, healthy and empowering environments and spaces for LGBTQ youth in our community," said Jen Kuhn, the organization's development and marketing manager.
"We work with a lot of schools in the central Ohio community, working with or helping them start (gay-straight alliances) in their buildings," Kuhn said. "We can provide training for staff and other resources to help build a culture of inclusiveness for LGBTQ students in schools."
Kaleidoscope's center on East Town Street in Columbus' Discovery District offers a variety of programming for LGBTQ teens to help them develop a true sense of self and gain support from peers, she said.
"Our programs range from a cooking club to an arts club, game nights, discussion nights and a social-justice theater group and visits to COSI or the zoo," Kuhn said. "We try to provide something that fits the interest of any student who stops by our center."
"The Laramie Project" will be performed at 7 p.m. Nov. 2-4 in the auditorium at the high school, 1587 W. Third Ave.
Each performance will be followed by a 30-minute discussion session with the audience, Olt said.
Tickets cost $5 and are available at ghcsd.org via the "Performing Arts" link and at the door payable with cash.
The show contains profanity and adult situations and subject matter, including descriptions of violence, and is not intended for young audiences.