Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
The theme of prejudice is an undercurrent in The Laramie Project. Prejudice can be related to class, education, economics, religion, or sexual preference. When one person rigidly believes in one side of a concept and cannot perceive the other side and, more importantly, will not tolerate others’ acceptance of the other side, prejudice rears its head. In this play, the town deals with varying levels of prejudice. Some of the characters represent the extremes, such as the Reverend Fred Phelps, who believes so deeply that homosexuality is wrong that he preaches that God Himself has hate. Other characters are less stridently prejudiced, such as the parents of Jedadiah Schultz, who refused to go to Jedadiah’s scholarship audition because their son was acting out a scene that involves homosexuality. They missed the opportunity to share in their son’s important moment, but their prejudice, at least in this one act, caused no physical harm to their son. Whether Matthew Shepard's accused murderers were prejudiced against homosexuals or just used that as an attempt to excuse their actions is not clear. In other words, the question remains, did they beat Matthew so severely because they did not like homosexuals or would they have done the same to any other student they might have robbed that night?
Marge Murray talks briefly about a prejudice that is possibly based on a combination of class, education, and economics. There are those without an education who work minimum-wage jobs and those who work at the university, she says, splitting the town into two different groups. She insinuates that one part of the population looks down on the other, which is where prejudice begins.
After the murder of Matthew Shepard, some members of the gay community in Laramie fear for their lives because they are concerned that other straight people in town might want to do the same to them. Their fears are based not only on the prejudice people might hold against the gay members of town but also on the prejudice that some of the gay community might hold against the townspeople. The fear that someone in the straight community might commit a similar crime is in some ways another form of prejudice. Stereotyping a macho cowboy is as prejudicial as stereotyping a gay person.
There is a discussion in one part of the play about why the murder of Matthew Shepard received so much media attention. After all, there was a policeman who was killed during the same period, and no one paid much attention to it. Aaron McKinney’s father also makes the statement that if Matthew Shepard had been a heterosexual, not as much would have been made of the crime. So what is the difference? Why was Shepard’s murder so heinous? For some reason, a random murder, such as one that might occur during a robbery, seems less sensational, whereas a crime committed out of hate seems more pointed. Is it the attitude behind the crime that arouses so much attention? In the past, legislative attempts to define hate crimes have sparked national debate. Should the definitions include crimes committed against disabled people or people of different nationalites? What about crimes against people of a different sexual orientation? And how does one prove that the crime was a hate crime? There are no conclusions made in this play. The facts are presented, and the interpretation is left to the audience. Was Shepard’s death the result of a hate crime? Or was it a random crime with no premeditation or specific hate? The answer is open to debate.
Conflict drives a dramatic work, and this play has a lot of it. There is the obvious conflict between those who live a gay lifestyle and those who live a straight lifestyle. There is also the conflict between the various religions and their interpretations of the Bible or their spiritual value systems. There is also the conflict between parents and children, especially in the case of Jedadiah Schultz and his parents, who do not want him associating with anything that has to do with homosexuality. But there are also internal conflicts, such as those expressed by Jedadiah. He wants to believe that his parents and his minister are right. But he senses that something is wrong with their beliefs against homosexuality. So Jedadiah struggles within himself, trying to come to terms with the conflict between the basic values of the adults in his life and his own experiences.
Another emotional conflict revolves around the death penalty. Is it justifiable to kill someone who has killed another? Should the accused murderers be given death sentences? The most poignant conflict is the one that occurs in the mind of Dennis Shepard, the father of Matthew. He admits that he would like to see McKinney receive the death penalty for having murdered his son. But he concludes that Matthew would not want that. So Dennis Shepard has an internal conflict, much like Jedadiah, and finally concludes that he will defer to what he believes his son would have called for—an end to violence.