By Jan Mercker
What does it mean to be other? And how can communities have tough conversations designed to foster understanding and tolerance?
These are just two questions a diverse group of young people from Loudoun and Warren counties, along with their adult mentors, are tackling in an upcoming one-day-only production of “The Laramie Project” in Leesburg on Feb. 3.
The young members and adult leaders of the Embark Center for Self-Directed Education in Leesburg and the Selah Theatre Project in Front Royal are joining forces to stage the award-winning play that focuses on the aftermath of the real-life murder of college student Matthew Shepard.
Embark Center Director Andrea Cubelo-McKay and LaTasha Do’zia-Earley, founder and director of Selah, are former teaching colleagues whose paths to helping young people have taken different—but complementary—directions. When Cubelo-McKay caught Selah’s production of the play, she knew she had to bring it to Loudoun.
Cubelo-McKay launched the Embark Center last fall with a group of 16 teens ranging in age from 12 to 18 that she describes as “eclectic.” The nonprofit center serves teens for whom a traditional public school setting just isn’t a good fit, helping them find a meaningful path with the help of adult mentors.
“There is a different face to people who choose an alternative to traditional school,” Cubelo-McKay said. “You’re not broken if you don’t fit in the public schools.”
Most of Embark’s teen students have been in public schools for most of their educational lives, but pulled out last year to try a new path through Embark. Some have anxiety or depression, Cubelo-McKay said, some were bullied, some are members of the LGBT community who didn’t feel welcome in their home schools, and others simply didn’t feel that the traditional public school setting was the best route for achieving their educational goals.
“What I was learning was not what I wanted to be learning. I wasn’t doing anything that had meaning to me,” said 15-year-old Meghan Sutter. “I wasn’t engaged—I was just there because I had to be. … I’m learning things now that I actually want to learn.”
While Embark Center does offer a few classes, Cubelo-McKay underscores that it’s not a school substitute but a resource center to help kids plot their own educational courses. The cozy building in downtown Leesburg offers a community center-like social setting for kids to connect and be together as they pursue their own paths.
“Our primary role is, how can we help you create a meaningful life for yourself now because the most effective way to have a meaningful future is to have a meaningful present,” Cubelo-McKay said.
While Cubelo-McKay was getting her program rolling in Leesburg, her former colleague Do’zia-Earley was ramping things up with the Selah Theatre Project, launched in 2012 and offering both youth productions and community theater for adults. The nonprofit company has a reputation for pushing the envelope in a positive way in conservative, rural Warren County, and the decision by Do’zia-Earley and her teen actors to put on “The Laramie Project” took things a step farther than they’d gone before.
“The Laramie Project,” created by Moises Kaufman and members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project in 2000, focuses on the aftermath of the 1998 beating, torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, and is based on hundreds of interviews with Laramie residents following the murder.
Cubelo-McKay and the young Embark members brought the play into their ongoing group discussions about gender identity and decided to bring the Selah production to Loudoun.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions on gender and sexuality and what the implications for being exposed to prejudice and discrimination has been like for them,” Cubelo-McKay said. “We have kids who are really passionate about bringing some of these issues forward. Now that they’ve found a safe community, they want to be able to shed some light on what life has been like for them.”
“There’s a bubble in this area because everyone is sort of comfortable,” added 16-year-old Will Salzmann, who’s enrolled at Embark. “I don’t think they spend a lot of time thinking about others and different types of people. … I think it’s important to show what can happen when that goes unchecked.”
The operators of the Leesburg Junction space in downtown Leesburg offered them a rate they could afford, and Cubelo-McKay and her members got to work on logistics.
Meanwhile, after a successful run in Front Royal and Winchester last fall, Do’zia-Earley’s young actors jumped at the chance to bring the play to another community.
The company’s youth program includes teens from all backgrounds—from private school students to at-risk teens—and its name comes from a Hebrew word appearing frequently in the Bible, sometimes translated as, “to pause.”
“Selah means to pause and to think about it, so every piece that we do—even down to our children’s theater—comes with some kind of conversation that can happen between audience members and actors and our communities,” Do’zia-Earley said.
When Do’zia-Earley suggested putting on “The Laramie Project” in conjunction with the 19th anniversary of Shepard’s death last fall, she knew the material was heavy but that her teen actors could handle it.
“The one thing that my students and I are not afraid of doing is being able to take risks with shows—especially in our community really pushing the envelope a little bit.”
And the play’s range of perspectives has challenged actors and audience members alike—with LGBT actors in some cases taking on conservative characters whose beliefs contradict their own.
“It’s not one-sided at all,” Do’zia-Earley said. “You have people that are heartbroken over Matthew’s death. There are people who condemn him to hell. There are people who don’t understand it. There are people who are in the middle. There are people who have one perspective at the beginning of the play, and by the end of the play their perspective has completely changed. It’s such a great integration of people and diversity and thought surrounding this issue.”
When the play premiered in Front Royal and Winchester last fall, Do’zia-Earley anticipated some pushback from some community members, but that didn’t really materialize.
“It was very well-received,” she said. “All walks of life came to the show and great conversations were had after the show.”
And starting conversations on important issues meshes 100 percent with Cubelo-McKay’s goals for Embark.
“Watching the effect on the community has repercussions for how we deal with creating community and creating bridges between people who speak different languages whatever the topic is,” Cubelo-McKay said. “And that, I think, is what we try to do here.”
For more information about Selah Theatre Project, go to selahtheatreproject.org. Learn more about the Embark Center for Self-Directed Education at embarkcenter.org.