At a time when the number of hate groups in America is rising, Roosevelt University is shifting focus toward understanding hate and working together for solutions in a new project: the Considering Matthew Shepard Residency.
Developed and presented Feb. 26-March 6 by Roosevelt's Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) through the college's Center for Arts Leadership and the Music Conservatory, the project remembers the openly gay Shepard and his 1998 murder through music and discussions as a university community.
Featuring more than 25 of CCPA's student singers, a production of the new oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard has been a project highlight, drawing sold-out crowds to performances in Roosevelt's Ganz Hall.
The project's panel discussions on the power of stories and musical memorialization also have been key in engaging the Roosevelt community, including faculty, administrators and students, in shared understanding.
"It was such emotional material – music that tugged at all of our hearts," said Roosevelt vocal performance major Claire Barber, a member of the CCPA Chorus that performed the 90-minute piece.
Barber was a soloist in roles as Shepard's mother and as the Fence where Shepard lay dying. Probably her most difficult role, however, was as a protester whose ugly words included "God hates fags."
"That kind of hatred wasn't hard to find where I grew up in Texas," said Barber, who hopes the piece will move all who saw it to abandon hate and embrace compassion.
"It's been a cathartic experience for all of us," she added, predicting the emotional power of Considering Matthew Shepard will eventually lead to its becoming "a staple for new choral works."
One of the first universities to perform the work, Roosevelt landed the piece thanks to the efforts of CCPA faculty members Cheryl Frazes Hill and Mark Crayton. Negotiations for permission to perform the piece published in September 2018 – 20 years after Shepard's death – began last year.
"I knew we had to perform this piece," said Frazes Hill, who saw it conducted by composer Craig Hella Johnson and performed by the Conspirare chorus at Ravinia Festival. Frazes Hill met Shepard's father at that performance and worked closely with Johnson and Conspirare's executive director to obtain the material in time to prepare, prior to the piece's official release, for CCPA's own shows.
"As a social justice institution, it is our job to create transformational experiences for our students. This project has done that," she said.
"We had the right group of students for this project at the right time," added Crayton, who helped develop the relevant and timely show, which comes on the heels of a Southern Poverty Law Center report for 2018 that found hate groups increasing in the United States for a fourth consecutive year.
"I truly believe this was the right time in our political culture to present this kind of project," he said.
The project's February 26 panel discussion on "The Power of Stories" featured appearances by Matthew Shepard Foundation Executive Director Jason Marsden and clinical psychologist, Dr. Armand Cerbone.
"Matthew Shepard is a story about our country and each of us," Roosevelt President Ali Malekzadeh noted in kicking off the project and story-telling panel discussion. "We have created a safe space to talk about our experiences."
The discussion included sharing of personal stories by two Chorus members: Vocal Performance major Taylor Trentham, 22, who portrayed the dying Shepard at Ganz on March 5; and Honors Bachelor of Musical Arts Major Alex Fruin, 23, cast as the dying Shepard in the March 6 performance.
"It was extremely difficult to portray Matthew dying because in many ways I relate to him," said Trentham, who thinks of himself growing up as an ordinary boy, much like Shepard. The CCPA student noted that he and Shepard were of similar size, shared passion and curiosity about life and a love for their geographical settings.
While Trentham was bullied growing up, he came out as gay following high school. "It means everything to be part of a university and project that values LGBTQ people and their stories," he said.
"Emotionally it's been difficult to come to terms with Matthew's death," said Fruin, who came out first, approximately 10 years ago, to a brother, a firefighter who supported Fruin in his decision before dying in 2013 while responding to a fire.
"I've had to interpret words in the production and what they meant to me when I first came out," said Fruin. "As a result, I am leaving this production as a different person, much stronger than when I came in."
Roosevelt scholars also weighed in on impact of Considering Matthew Shepard during the March 1 panel discussion, "Music and Memorialization."
Bonnie Gunzenhauser, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an English literature scholar, compared the piece to Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion, an extravagant and sacred oratorio moving audiences for centuries.
"This musical work remembers not only Matthew Shepard, but also all the lived experiences of other hate crime victims," added Stephanie Salerno, assistant director of outreach and engagement at CCPA and a cultural studies scholar. She believes the piece offers anyone reflecting on its traumatic circumstances a pathway for healing and understanding of differences.
"We all hope we're changed by this piece, because otherwise it can be too easy for us to feel good about merely being part of a commemorative experience," said Thomas Kernan, assistant professor of music history and a panel discussion scholar. "Unfortunately the world doesn't change in the 90 minutes required for this performance, so the best we can hope for is that we use the performance to examine our own hearts as we recommit to the idea that hatred and violence should have no place in society."
Going forward, the challenge will be to continue building on social-justice programming and art that move CCPA students, and by proxy, their audiences and the entire Roosevelt community, said Rudy Marcozzi, dean of CCPA.
"This project emphasizes the power that music can have in educating our students as artist citizens, compelling them through performance to make change for the better," he said.