Student featured on MTV directs ‘The Laramie Project’

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Linda Smith
Assistant News Editor

Freshman Jerick Johnson starred in his own episode of MTV’s hit show “Made” during his junior year of high school. “Made” hires celebrity coaches to help teenagers realize their full potential. Having become self-confident, he has applied and been accepted to direct a production of “The Laramie Project,” about the brutal murder of gay teen Matthew Shephard at the hands of Aaron McKinley and Russell Henderson.

As high-school sophomore Johnson approached the “Made” representatives, he hoped that if he was accepted to be made into a power lifter, the show would help him overcome the introversion he had shown throughout high school.

“Going into the show, I was still shy, and I didn’t hang out with a lot of guys,” Johnson said. “My friends consisted of all girls. And being a guy and not having guy friends to talk about guy things with is terrible.”

He and his family were greatly surprised a couple weeks later when he was approved for an episode. To be successful, Johnson’s coach, world champion power lifter Johnnie Jackson, put Johnson to the test with different assignments to measure his progress.

“One of the first assignments I had on the show was to find a man to work out with, and that was absolutely terrifying,” Johnson said. “I remember I had asked my friend Nathan Degen to work out with me, and I was so nervous. I had to do it, because I was on TV, so I said, ‘Hey, you wanna work out?’ I didn’t know how to end it, so there was awkward inflection in the end but he said, ‘Yeah, sure, whenever,’ and Nathan and I really became good friends after that.”

Through much hard work and tears, Johnson reached his goal of becoming not only a power lifter but also more self-assured.

“Out of the show, I became more confident in myself, I applied myself more and I came out 15 pounds heavier,” Johnson said. “I still have those 15 pounds, maybe not all in muscle, but I still have some muscle from the show!”

Johnson is now taking part in the After Hours series with “The Laramie Project.” According to drama department chairman Kyle Lemieux, the After Hours series has little faculty involvement, if any, and gives drama students a chance “to do things they want to do that for some reason aren’t being done, and gives them a venue to perform.”

“It’s an opportunity to have a blast creating and making theater and discovering what that is,” Lemieux said. “I think it’s a huge part of what our kids benefit from by having a venue for performance like that.”

Johnson feels that the play hits close to home because he went through many of the things that other gay teens in the play experience, like seclusion and fear.

“I read this play when I was a senior in high school, and I fell in love with it, not only because I am a gay teen, but because you feel the same things these other Laramie residents feel, the ones who are gay and hide it and don’t tell anyone,” Johnson said. “It touches me in a way that I think no other play has really done to me before.”

One of the most striking aspects of the play is that it is drawn from over 200 hours of interviews with Laramie residents. Only eight actors play the many parts.

“Playing different characters will be very challenging,” cast member Taylor Garcia said. “I have six women to play in the span of three hours. I really think it will be difficult to do so, but I know it will be so rewarding. I am so ready for it!”

This play has been deemed controversial by a number of viewers, but Johnson welcomes the opportunity to discuss and educate rather than argue. “If the play is controversial, bring questions that you have, don’t just sit there and try to say, ‘Well, you’re wrong, that’s the wrong message to send to people,’” Johnson said. “Go see it, because it has a great cast, and I believe there’s a message in here for you. What you find in that message is really up to the viewer, though.”

Johnson is required to try out for main stage and senior studio productions as a drama major and for his departmental scholarship, and must always give his best to whatever roles he portrays.

“That’s what I love about being an actor, you have to push it 24/7,” Johnson said. “It’s not only with acting and finding your character and finding this person whom you are playing and giving to the public, but also working in school, getting your grades, making sure they’re great and then trying to keep a social life.”

“I am most looking forward to telling people what this story is all about and showcasing Jerick’s talent.” Garcia said. “I am really and truly touched by this story, and I think everyone should come and see it, no matter what.”

“The Laramie Project” has inspired Johnson’s future in drama, since he hopes to perform in plays “that actually say something.”

“A lot of contemporary plays these days try to do a shock-factor thing, but I really like plays like ‘The Laramie Project’ that send a message,” Johnson said. “It is something that will last for a long time.”
Johnson’s production of “The Laramie Project” will be performed in the Drama Building on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 9 p.m. Admission is free.

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