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Play on Gay Victim Opens in Calif.

November 9, 2002

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NEWARK, Calif. (AP) _ A play about a murdered gay college student has taken on new significance in a town shaken by the death of a 17-year-old boy who dressed as a girl.

``Everything that’s gone on has brought a completely different perspective of life in general, I think, to all of us and how we treat each other,″ said Kate Lyness, one of the student actors in ``The Laramie Project″ at Newark Memorial High School.

Students planned months ago to put on ``The Laramie Project,″ which tells the story of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who died in October 1998 after he was beaten and tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo.

Two men are serving life in prison for the killing.

The Newark student players ran into controversy in September when anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps, who picketed Shepard’s funeral and is one of the characters in the play, sent a fax declaring his followers would picket the play.

In October, the student production was back in the national spotlight with the death of Eddie ``Gwen″ Araujo. Police said Araujo was killed by three men angry that the person they knew as ``Lida″ was anatomically male.

One of the men accused in Araujo’s death, Jaron Chase Nabors, 19, has pleaded innocent. The others, 22-year-olds Jose Antonio Merel and Michael William Magidson, appeared briefly in court Friday but did not enter a plea. Their lawyers, who said they need time to go over evidence in the case, got a new hearing date of Dec. 13.

Outside the courtroom, Michael P. Thorman, who represents Magidson, said comparisons between Araujo’s slaying and the Shepard case are off-base.

``Eddie Aruajo unfortunately was killed, but he was not singled out because of his sexual orientation or his gender,″ Thorman said, declining to elaborate.

At a rainy candlelight vigil before the play Friday night, Araujo’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, spoke tearfully of her loss and said she hoped her son’s death would bring a new understanding of the importance of tolerance.

``He had a lot of pain as he was growing up and in his death he had a lot of pain,″ she told about 200 people at the vigil. ``I only wish I could have been there that night so that I could have protected him because I loved him with all my heart.″

Guerrero has tried to stay in seclusion since the murder but said she felt moved to speak out in support of tolerance. Playwright Moises Kaufman attended the Friday night opening of the play, which had a packed house of about 300 people.

``It was about Laramie, but it was about here,″ Kaufman said. ``It was about now.″

For students in Newark, ``The Laramie Project″ has put words to grief.

``The play is so close to the reality,″ said drama teacher Barbara Williams, who produced the play. ``It comes out of the heart.″

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