Many members of an audience of mostly Ole Miss students, including an estimated 20 Ole Miss football players, openly disrespected and disrupted the Ole Miss theater department’s production of “The Laramie Project” Tuesday night at the Meek Auditorium.
Cast members of the play, which is about an openly gay male who was murdered in Laramie County in Wyoming, said members of the audience became so disruptive at times that they struggled completing the play.
According to the play’s director and theater faculty member Rory Ledbetter, some audience members used derogatory slurs like “fag” and heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations. Ledbetter said the audience’s reactions included “borderline hate speech.”
“I am the only gay person on the cast,” junior theater major Garrison Gibbons said. “I played a gay character in the show, and to be ridiculed like that was something that really made me realize that some people at Ole Miss and in Mississippi still can’t accept me for who I am.”
According to several accounts, the football players attended the play because they are enrolled in a freshman-level theater course that requires the students to attend a specific number of plays throughout the semester.
The play’s House Director Lyda Phillips, who is a theater major and an athletics ambassador, became aware of the reactions of the football players and called a coach, who then called department of athletics Associate Director of Academic Support Drew Clinton to come to the auditorium, according to the theater department’s performance report.
“The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night,” Ledbetter said. “But they were definitely the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say things, too. It seemed like they didn’t know that they were representing the university when they were doing these things.”
After the second act of the play and after Clinton arrived, cast members were told backstage that the football players wished to apologize to the cast after the play for their actions, which included “taking pictures of cast members while making fun of them, talking on their cell phones, hollering at the females in the cast and talking to other audience members during the acts,” according to the performance report.
“The football players were asked by the athletics department to apologize to the cast,” Ole Miss Theatre Department Chair Rene Pulliam said. “However, I’m not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for.”
The football players’ apology, which was given by one undisclosed football player on behalf of the entire group, caused two cast members to cry.
“I have been acting for seven or eight years, and a lot of that has been in front of young children,” sophomore theater major Rachel Staton said. “That was by far the worst audience I’ve ever performed in front of. It wasn’t all football players, but they seemed to be the leaders. If I can go support and respect the football team in their stadium, I feel like they should be able to support and respect me and my fellow cast members when we are doing a show.”
The Ole Miss Athletics Department issued no comment, but Ledbetter said he received an emailed apology from a member of the athletics department that expressed that they knew about the incident and would handle it accordingly.
Ole Miss Dean of Students Sparky Reardon was made aware of the incident Wednesday morning.
“I am extremely sorry to hear that this happened,” he said. “We are still looking into the specifics to determine what happened.”
This incident occurred just two weeks after the inaugural UM Creed Week, which honored the University Creed that begins with the words, “I believe in respect for the dignity of each person.”
“It’s ironic in a way. In (“The Laramie Project’) we address these topics of hate against homosexuals,” Ledbetter said. “What happened in the audience (Tuesday night) was the very thing we were trying to portray in the show. (The incident) suggests we have a long way to go.”
According to Ledbetter, while the majority of the audience was being disrespectful, not all members of the audience caused problems. He said that a few people even approached the cast after the show and showed their appreciation to the actors and actresses.
Ledbetter believes that more needs to be done on campus concerning discrimination against homosexuality.
“The unfortunate part of all of this is that I don’t think that the audience members that caused these problems really understood what they were doing,” he said. “Further education on all of this needs to be brought to light.”
The play ran Thursday through Sunday last week, and no incident like Tuesday’s occurred. The production will run Wednesday through Sunday this week at the Meek Auditorium.