OXFORD – University of Mississippi leaders said on Thursday they “strongly condemn” a Tuesday night incident in which students disrupted a theater department production and allegedly used gay slurs.
Chancellor Dan Jones and Athletic Director Ross Bjork issued a joint statement apologizing on behalf of the university’s 22,000 students, its faculty and its staff for what occurred during a student performance of “The Laramie Project” on Tuesday night at Meek Auditorium.
The play is about the death of an openly-gay Wyoming college student, who was brutally beaten and left to die. Cast members said an audience of primarily students – including many student athletes – laughed during sensitive scenes and often were disrespectful.
Cast members Rachel Staton and Cayley Smith said they did not hear the use of a gay slur but that other cast members did.
“We have a high tolerance for a bad audience, and this was different than anything any of us have ever experienced,” said Staton, a sophomore from Atlanta pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
She and Smith mentioned one scene in which a character who participated in the beating is interrogated about his actions. The character uses homophobic language, they said, and was cheered by the audience.
“The actor doesn’t show much remorse, and they thought he was hilarious,” said Smith, a junior from Arlington, Texas, pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. “They were cackling with laughter. It was horrifying.”
The story was first reported by the Daily Mississippian on Thursday morning and was quickly picked up by national websites. Part of the reaction was because of the participation of football players.
Michael Barnett, assistant chair of the department of theater arts, said the auditorium seats 140 people and that it was “fairly full.” He said many of those in attendance were students who were required to attend a play as part of their theater appreciation class. That included a “large contingency” of athletes from several sports, including “about 25 football players.”
Staton and Smith said the problems were from the entire audience, not just from football players or athletes. They said audience members also took photographs with their cell phones and commented on the weight of one actress.
“The entire audience was extremely disrespectful,” Staton said. “The inappropriate language is what got most of us upset.”
The university’s Bias Incident Response Team is investigating it and will make a report to the university. That is a group of about five faculty and staff members charged with investigating incidents of possible discrimination. Having such a team is not unique to Ole Miss.
“While we will work to determine with certainty who disrupted the Laramie Project play, we want everyone within our university community and beyond to know that we strongly condemn the behavior exhibited Tuesday night,” said the statement from Jones and Bjork.
It also notes that the two were to meet on Thursday with freshman student athletes from various sports who attended the play and discuss what happened as well as the university-wide commitment to inclusivity and civility and about the important role they play in representing the university.
Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze said on Thursday morning he was just beginning to look into the matter.
Staton said it was a largely male audience with few adults present, and that may have created a pack mentality.
“I wouldn’t say it was homophobic,” she said. “I believe the root of most bias – whether it be homophobia or racism – I think it comes from insecurity and not understanding. I don’t think Ole Miss is a homophobic campus, but I do think there is a not a lot of understanding because they have not been exposed to a subject like gay rights.”
Perhaps students who were uncomfortable laughed or talked over the play and others picked up on that, she said.
“I think it is a bit of immaturity,” she said.
Among those in the audience was Rob McAuley of Tupelo, a freshman biology major, who believed the incident was “blown out of proportion.”
He said he did not hear any slurs, but that he did leave early. He also did not feel audience members were talking inappropriately.
“I was on the front and center, and if someone would have yelled the derogatory statement, I’m sure I would have heard it,” he said.
Smith, however, said many cast members were in tears on and off stage because of the “hatred” they felt. She said cast members don’t want to see the audience members punished but rather to understand what they did.
“While the university has made great strides in the past 51 years since integration, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to rid our campus of bigotry and hatred, and we think this episode speaks to that,” said Barnett, who also is chair of the Faculty Senate. “We are hoping something positive comes from that and this will be a learning experience for the entire community.”
STATEMENT from Dan Jones and Ross Bjork:
“While we work to determine with certainty who disrupted the Laramie Project play, we want everyone within our university community and beyond to know that we strongly condemn the behavior exhibited Tuesday night. As a member of the Ole Miss family, each of us has a responsibility to be accountable for our actions, and these individuals will be held accountable. Our investigation will determine the degree to which any and all students were involved.
As a first step to addressing behavior at the performance Tuesday night, we will meet today with the freshman student-athletes (from various sports) who attended the play and have a dialogue about what happened, about our university-wide commitment to inclusivity and civility, and about the important role they play in representing the university. It is clear that some students badly misrepresented the culture of this university. From there, we will work with Student-Affairs and the Bias Incident Response Team to determine the facts and appropriate next steps.
Incidents like this remind all educators that our job is to prepare our students to be leaders in life during their years on campus and after they graduate from Ole Miss. This behavior by some students reflects poorly on all of us, and it reinforces our commitment to teaching inclusivity and civility to young people who still have much to learn. We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential.
On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize.”
Parrish Alford contributed to this story.