Ole Miss student Cayley Smith wants everyone to understand that the incident that happened at the “Laramie Project” Tuesday night was not all about athletes or football players, it was a student/audience issue in regards to appropriate behavior and manners used at a live event.
Smith, a junior from Arlington, Texas who is working on her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree, was a member of the campus theater company that was performing the play at the Meek Auditorium. For those that aren’t familiar with the Laramie Project, it is a play created by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. The death of Shepard, who was an openly gay man, was denounced as a hate crime.
The play is drawn on hundreds of interviews based on Shepard’s death and it was being performed this semester by members of the theater department. At the start of the play, Smith said she noticed the audience talking and things going on in the audience. Smith said she assumed that the audience was uncomfortable. Smith said that “90 percent of the audience” was male. Students in a 200 level class are required to attend plays during the semester in order to receive a grade. Smith said a playbill was provided outlining the subject matter of the play, but she was unaware if the students that were attending the play were offered information about the subject matter by an instructor prior to their arrival.
After the initial talking, Smith said it became more than just idle conversation, leading to derogatory words being used.
“I definitely do not think they had an agenda to mess up the play. I don’t think it was done maliciously or on purpose. I think they were uncomfortable with the subject matter that was being presented to them in the beginning so they would laugh and make a few jokes and in my opinion, because the audience was mostly male, it hit on an emotion that a lot of them felt towards certain people in the cast and certain ideals that were being presented,” Smith said. “It was allowed to grow into something that I would classify as hate speech. Most of the time we couldn’t hear what they were saying but they were clearly talking. I know one of our actresses distinctly heard Garrison Gibbons when he presented himself as a gay man on stage, she heard him called (the f word used to negatively describe a homosexual). One of our actresses walked off stage and heard somebody say ‘dude, she’s so big’ to describe her body type. We have a girl who plays a Muslim in the show and there was a lot of snickering at that when she came out with the head piece on. It wasn’t just the gay thing, first of all. It was more like a humanitarian thing, people just being hateful in general and laughing at the subject matter.”
Smith said that one of the characters in the play is Aaron McKinney, who killed Shepard. His role was cheered by the audience, she said, when the person portraying McKinney was giving his confession.
“Aaron doesn’t show any remorse at all, he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong by murdering this boy or torturing him to death. (Audience) thought he was hilarious. That was the funniest part of the show to them,” Smith said adding its inevitable for live plays to garner a reaction, pro or con. “That’s the point of theater. It’s to create controversy and to mirror life. It’s to teach people about issues and to create a dialogue of what’s going on in the world today which is why we chose to do this play. I don’t think we expected people to be so blatantly disrespectful and rude in the middle of the play.”
She added that while some in the audience were football players or athletes at Ole Miss, other students were being rude or using derogatory language while the actors and actresses were on stage during the live performance. Part of the comments outlined by Smith came from other areas of the auditorium, away from where the athletes were sitting she said.
Smith, who has done theater work since she was 4, said it was the first time she remembers anyone in the audience disturbing a play. She also wanted to make it clear that the students weren’t yelling at the top of their lungs, or standing up and shouting, but due to the intimate setting of the auditorium, certain words used to negatively label a homosexual could be heard.
“I want to say that it was not only the athletics people doing it. That’s very important, we want to get that across. The athletics director was called (an academic administrator was actually called and dispatched) during the show by our house manager and he came in the third act and he requested that they stay and make an apology to the cast and crew after the show,” Smith said. “Honestly, the thing that hurt me the absolute most over the whole night was they said that they were sorry and not laughing at us, they were laughing at the play because they thought the play was funny.
“In my opinion, a boy being murdered is not funny. He wasn’t just murdered, he was tortured to death because he’s gay. That really hurt me that they would say that. It also seemed to me that they didn’t really understand why they had to apologize,” Smith said before adding she didn’t want to see the players punished. “We don’t want them to have to sit out games. That seems silly to me. I want to help them understand that what they did was wrong. What we want … we want to help them feel compassion. We feel so much compassion for them that they have this hate in them. Clearly they have some kind of hate.”
In the end, Smith was hoping for the incident not to have any more of a negative impact on Mississippi or Ole Miss or Oxford. She felt like the national media only got about “half” of the story accurately reported.
“I’m not a big fan of (reporters) saying they were yelling out the word fxg, or these type words. They weren’t yelling. Because it’s a small stage area, you could hear them. Just the fact that they were talking loud enough to where we could hear them, that’s already … they probably didn’t mean for us to hear them but we did and it was hurtful,” Smith said. “I want to make sure people know that they weren’t screaming and yelling and standing up. They weren’t doing that. They were being disrespectful and laughing and being extremely loud. It was a little nerve wracking and disturbing.
“I want people in this community, as a theater department, we really hope this can be taken as a learning experience for the entire city of Oxford, not just our Ole Miss campus. I really hope this helps us progress forward and away from the bigotry and the labels that go along with living in Mississippi,” Smith said. “I don’t want people outside of Mississippi to say ‘ugh, Mississippi, they’re all racists and bigots and terrible people’ because we’re not.
“We’re 98 percent good people and there are a few people who aren’t and I think that should not color a whole, entire state in a bad way. I want people to look at this and say ‘oh, Mississippi is growing and Ole Miss is growing and learning to be more accepting of the world.’ That Mississippi is coming up to speed with most of the other states and other countries in the world. That’s what I want form this.”
Ole Miss Athletics Director Ross Bjork, in conjunction with Chancellor Dan Jones, issued a statement on the behavior Thursday, apologizing for the behavior.
“While we work to determine with certainty who disrupted the Laramie Project play, we want everyone within our university community and beyond to know that we strongly condemn the behavior exhibited Tuesday night. As a member of the Ole Miss family, each of us has a responsibility to be accountable for our actions, and these individuals will be held accountable. Our investigation will determine the degree to which any and all students were involved.
As a first step to addressing behavior at the performance Tuesday night, we will meet (Thursday) with the freshman student-athletes
Incidents like this remind all educators that our job is to prepare our students to be leaders in life during their years on campus and after they graduate from Ole Miss. This behavior by some students reflects poorly on all of us, and it reinforces our commitment to teaching inclusivity and civility to young people who still have much to learn. We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential. On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize. (October 4, 2013)