Ole Miss players hiding in dark

The actor walked out onto the stage alone in one of the most poignant moments of the play, and his character revealed: “I’m 52, and I’m gay.’’

Jade Genga, a student and actress in the play at the University of Mississippi was describing the moment to me, a notorious moment last week that made national news at a school play. The play, “The Laramie Project,’’ was about a town’s emotional aftermath following the kidnapping, pistol-whipping, torture and murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

And how did the group of roughly 20 Ole Miss football players in the audience Tuesday night, sitting in a dark theater, react to one guy on the stage in the moment?

“A slight pause,” she said. “Then laughing. Pointing. Then coughing out homophobic slurs. Just laughter.”

They coughed out the word “fag” and took pictures of him.

Genga set the scene, and clarified a few things, as a mob of angry people has tried to change facts of the night. She said the football players weren’t yelling out at the actors, but coughing out words, and that no one in the audience was standing up to them. In fact, some were joining in.

Basically, it was a group hiding in the dark bullying an actor, and then more actors who were performing an emotional moment on stage.

Dialogue and disagreement are good things, healthy things if done right. We need them, actually, to be the society we want to be. But that requires the courage to do it out of hiding, away from the safety of anonymity, groups, dark rooms. It requires civility, away from the mob, face to face.

That’s what we’re about to get at Mississippi, thanks to courageous theater students who are about to flush out cowardly football players and a cowardly university administration and take back a terrible moment.

Actors on stage, and backstage, broke into tears.

“We don’t want to punish the football team,” Genga said. “We want to fight hate with love.”

The actors from the play have told the university they want to meet in small groups with these football players, and with faculty, to talk with them about what they did, to make them actually think about it.

Yes, think.

And to instruct them on why what they did was hurtful and hateful. Genga said the university has agreed to these meetings and that they will be mandatory not only for the football players in the audience that night, but also for everyone else who was there.

Football players are coming for an intervention.

On Tuesday night, two members of the athletic department, tipped off during the play about what was happening, showed up and made the players apologize after the play. But a report in the school paper said that the actors didn’t believe the players knew what they were apologizing for. What did that mean?

“From my experience standing on stage, one of the athletes came forward and apologized on behalf of all,” Genga said. “But then one came up and said, ‘We weren’t laughing at you. We were laughing at the whole situation.’”

The situation? About seeing a reaction to a gay man tortured and killed?

“It was so odd to hear that,” she said. “It gave us the implication that it did not quite sink in. So, then they were ushered out so quickly, we didn’t have the opportunity to speak with them.”

And that’s what they want, not punishment. At least, not yet.

What an incredible move from these theater students, taking such a constructive approach and forcing meaningful, healthy dialogue. It comes while the Ole Miss football players are still hiding in their little group, and the university was trying to let them stay there.

What happened after the play, when the story went national? Well, football players are taught to take responsibility, and . . . hah! They stuck together, cowered behind each other when it came time to “man up.” Meanwhile, university officials spoke to the group for 45 minutes and issued a statement saying, “The task of identifying specific individuals who were purported to have disrupted the performance is difficult because of the dark theatre.”

So the university decided not to punish anyone. Players were not suspended as part of a group. That’s the beauty of intervention approach, breaking players out of their hiding.

“Amazing that people are hiding in the audience behind what they assume is distance,” Genga said. “That’s why they’re breaking these interventional groups into small groups.”

By no means did Genga accept the athletic department explanation that it didn’t know for sure who was saying what. It’s a small theater, she said, and not so dark that you couldn’t see people who were 10 feet from the stage.

She was looking past that dishonesty, though, because of the chance for the intervention.

“Right now, we want this to be very constructive,’’ she said. “It is line up. If after that (there is no understanding) and they decide there is no evidence, then we will push back.”

The players were at the play because of a requirement of a theater class. Genga said that day in class, before the play, they discussed theater etiquette. During the play, people in the audience were on their cellphones, or holding loud conversations. She said that it wasn’t just football players, but also other athletes, and non-athletes, too. The actors were shocked that no one stood up for them, and that some joined in.

During the play, she said, there were three acts. When the house manager took the stage during the intermissions and asked for civility and manners, Genga said, “there were comments about her looks, her behind. There were a series of other objectifying comments.”

What about reports that some of the actors were laughing, too?

No, she said. But maybe the sound of actors crying backstage was confused with the sound of laughing.

This isn’t just an issue about a group of athletes. It’s about all of us, really, and the civility of debate. I wrote about this last week, having spoken with Shepard’s mother, Judy, who compared the hate of the speech from the football players to that from the people who killed her son. FOXSports.com had to shut down the comments section at the bottom of the column because of the same lack of civility that came from the football players. Remember: This was in regard to a mother whose son was brutally murdered.

Several emails sent to me were filled with bad language and said that God is opposed to homosexuality. They seemed to consider that justification for the football players’ behavior, as if that’s the way to have a dialogue or make a point.

Really? God would have approved heckling people who were putting on a play like this? As if He would have been sitting among the players coughing out slurs, too?

Genga said the actors were particularly surprised that this homophobia would come from their generation and that they figured it is still being taught somewhere.

“There’s a line in the play,” she said, “‘Now, it’s time to begin the healing process, and good coming from evil.’’’

That’s what they want to talk about in small groups, when the players can come out of hiding, and maybe into the light.