According to local newspaper the Daily Mississippian, an estimated 20 Ole Miss football players were in attendance for the Tuesday evening performance of the theatre department's first show of the 2013-14 season — The Laramie Project, which continues through Oct. 6 at the Meek Auditorium. Several used derogatory slurs such as "fag" and heckled cast members and the characters they portrayed for their body types and sexual orientations.
The theatre department's performance report stated that house director Lyda Phillips, a theatre major and athletics ambassador, became aware of the football players' reactions and called a coach, who then contacted the Department of Athletics associate director of academic support, Drew Clinton, to report to the auditorium.
The football players, who were required to attend the show for a freshman-level theatre course, were asked to apologize to the cast following the performance. One undisclosed football player apologized on behalf of the group, causing two cast members to cry.
Cast member Garrison Gibbons — the only openly gay student in the production — shared his initial recounting of the incident with Playbill.com, which reads, "The audience was mocking the portions of the play that revolve around hatred and serious subject matters. Then, people laughed and mocked us as actors. I felt, every time I entered, I was being laughed at for being gay. In one of my monologues my character says, 'I'm 52 years old and I am gay,' and there is a pause. In that pause, I felt so much judgment and then came the laughter. Towards the end of my monologue, I realized people in the audience were using their iPhones to photograph me on stage with flash. Throughout the performance it got worse with comments overheard about the actors, and flat out laughing at the words 'fag' and 'queer.' Also laughing at the comments that Aaron McKinney, the murderer, said about the gay person he killed. It would be easy to generalize all the blame of this on the 20-30 football team members that were there, but they weren't the only ones. Many other people responded this way, too."
A statement to Playbill.com from the University's Department of Theatre Arts reads, "Theatre at its best holds a mirror up to society and exposes the best and worst of who we are. The Department of Theatre Arts at The University of Mississippi chose its current season, and The Laramie Project in particular, with this in mind. The events that occurred during Tuesday night's performance of The Laramie Project demonstrate that although this University has come a long way over the past 51 years in terms of equality and acceptance, it still has work to do. "As Chancellor Dan Jones has said, we have our good days and days that aren't as good. Tuesday night in Meek Auditorium was an example of the not as good. However negative these events have been, the Department of Theatre Arts hopes that the individuals involved, and all members of the campus community, can learn from this experience. Whenever hate speech is used on campus, we must all take time for reflection and endeavor to ensure that those who would use this type of language are educated in how hurtful and dangerous it can be. As The Laramie Project suggests, every time one uses hate speech, whether it be based on gender, race, sexuality or any other discriminatory measure, you are planting the seed of violence. This University must remain vigilant in its efforts to rid our campus of this bigotry and hatred.
"The Department of Theatre Arts has been in contact with the Chairs of the Bias Incident Response Team, members of the office of the Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs and members of the Athletics Department. All units have been very supportive of our students and are treating the matter with the utmost seriousness."
"We certainly do not condone any actions that offend or hurt people in any way," tweeted Hugh Freeze, the head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels, Oct. 3. "We are working with all departments involved to find the facts."
The Ole Miss athletics department did not issue a comment, but Rory Ledbetter, the play's director and theatre faculty member, told the Daily Mississippian that he received an emailed apology from a member of the athletics department. Dean of students Sparky Reardon said, "I am extremely sorry to hear that this happened. We are still looking into the specifics to determine what happened."
In his recount of the evening, student actor Gibbons also wrote, "Ole Miss as a student body needs to have a better understanding of equality and a better understanding of the LGBTQ history since this is the LGBTQ history month. I don't want to walk around this campus in fear. I want to be able to be myself, be open, and not fear judgment. I hope one day that dream can become reality."
"For me, it was shocking," Gibbons told Playbill.com by phone Oct. 3. "I've never felt something like this on this campus."
Although Gibbons said that he was disappointed by the negative response from the athletics department and many others in the audience on Oct. 1, he told Playbill.com that he has experienced nothing but support since the news broke.
"I've gotten over 50 messages of support on Facebook," he said. "I've only received support. Last night, when we did the show, and we walked away, [audiences responded that they] 'loved it'… We [now] understand the hope and the pain that these [characters in The Laramie Project] were feeling."