OTTUMWA — Auditions for "The Laramie Project" are on the horizon, and the play's leaders hope school administrators have learned their lesson.
The play looks at the Laramie, Wyo. community's reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in 1998. His murder brought attention to hate crimes across the nation. Last month, Ottumwa schools superintendent Davis Eidahl announced that the play would not be allowed to be performed by the Ottumwa High School drama department.
"The production in and of itself will go on, and the message still gets out there, which is important," said Dale Dommer, who is directing the play at Bridge View Center. "The problem I have, and I don't know why Davis doesn't see this, is the message we give by not allowing it in the school — and that's what he's missing. The message he sends by not allowing it is a much greater message to everybody."
OHS drama teacher Natalie Saunders said in the 20 years she's directed school plays, this is the first to be banned.
Dommer called Eidahl's refusal to allow the play censorship.
"We're using Matthew Shepard's story as a medium," he said. "It could be any black, Jewish or gay person, it doesn't matter. It's not about Matthew, it's not about Natalie or me or Davis, it's about humanity."
Dommer said he's upset Eidahl "can't see what he has done" and that in today's society, producing the play is not controversial — banning it is.
"Davis is a bully, whether he wants to recognize that or not," Dommer said. "Right, wrong or indifferent, our school system is in a bad way and they're not going to tell you that, but it is."
While homophobia still pervades, Dommer said calling southeast Iowa "homophobic" is a false blanket statement.
"There are definite people that are homophobic, but it's not that widespread epidemic here," he said.
Saunders agreed, saying overall, Ottumwa isn't homophobic.
"But there are teenagers, younger kids who maybe don't get out of the area very often to see the world in a bigger picture," she said. "At least this will make them think a little bit."
The play is supposed to make people question uncomfortable topics and encourage dialogue, Dommer said.
"It's to allow people to think, to express their ideas and do it in a civil way and get over this realm of hate," he said.
High school students are encouraged to try out in two weeks, but there are some roles for adults that could incorporate the community outside of the OHS drama department.
Saunders said Susan Burk, Laramie Project specialist with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, has indicated she may come to Ottumwa for the opening show. Burk was a television news reporter at the time and covered Shepard's murder, funeral and the ensuing trial.
"She's been a huge support system for us," Saunders said. "This is very personal to her, as well, because she knows the family."
Eidahl said the play was banned due to its "adult content." Soon after, national media picked up the story.
"Their shock is that this is still happening, that people are afraid to produce The Laramie Project," Saunders said of her friends in theatre across the nation. "This is something that really happened. It's no different than telling the story of an assassination or something else that's happened in our history.
"It doesn't matter what you think or your beliefs of people being gay, it's a matter of no one should be treated this way, no matter who they are. You could change this story and insert a Jewish person or, in our area, a Hispanic person ... it does not matter who the person is, it's what happened and why."
In terms of "adult content," Saunders and Dommer already went through the script and removed foul language.
During the fallout from the play's ban, Saunders and Dommer formed a production company, Theatre Adventures.
"We started this on our own so we could make sure we were operating the way we want the show to go, and we're the producers," Saunders said. "If people have issues with a show, they can talk to us. I've still never had anyone come to me and say, 'We didn't want you to do this show at all.'"
Dommer hopes Theatre Adventures will continue to push Ottumwans to think about topics normally shied away from.
"I would like [Eidahl] to say, 'Yeah, we made a mistake here,'" Dommer said.
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.
Auditions for the Laramie Project will be held 7-9 p.m. Aug. 22-23 at Bridge View Center. Teenagers and adults are encouraged to try out. The audition will consist of cold reads from the script. For more information on auditions, call Natalie Saunders at 641-799-2152 or Dale Dommer at 641-777-1090. The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10-12 at Bridge View Center, with a 2 p.m. matinee performance on Oct. 12. Tickets are available at www.showtix4u.com. To help fund the play's efforts, go to www.indiegogo.com/projects/project-laramie.