Hate crime or overreaction?

Germantown, Tenn., officials defended the firing of three theater workers who tied stage-rigging ropes into hangman’s nooses.

City Administrator Patrick Lawton likened the knots left hanging at Germantown Performing Arts Theatre to cross-burnings and swastikas.

“It is the symbol of hatred and bigotry,” he said.

Meanwhile, the city took criticism from people inside and outside the local theater community for either overreacting to or misinterpreting the knots.

“I’ve seen plenty of stagehands whittling their time away by tying all kinds of knots,” said Bob Hetherington, chairman of the department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Memphis.

“If they were trying to send a racial message of any kind, the fly system of a theater would be the last place anyone would see it.”

But someone did see the nooses.

Another city employee, who is black, complained of a hostile work environment when he saw the nooses.

Even if GPAC technical director Matthew Strampe and part-time stagehands Michael Laraway and William Martin didn’t fully grasp the racist connotations of the nooses, Lawton said, “absence of knowledge is not a defense. It is wrong.”

The city fired them Aug. 24.

Lawton spoke out Wednesday in the face of sharp criticism that he was being hyper-politically correct and overreacting to knots never meant to suggest lynchings of black people.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen met Wednesday night. But they closed part of the session because of threatened litigation.

After the closed session, which lasted an hour and 15 minutes, the board opened the meeting and voted unanimously to support the administration regarding the terminations.

The unanimous vote included Alderman Carole Hinely, who had indicated earlier that she thought the firings were an overreaction based on a misunderstanding. She changed her position after hearing from administration officials.

Strampe, a 29-year-old University of South Dakota graduate, had been GPAC’s technical director nearly a year.

According to the city’s prepared statements, Strampe acknowledged he asked Laraway and Martin to show him how to tie a noose and that it was a knot hardly ever used in theater.

Also, one of the workers put his head through the noose and all three joked about the “hangman’s noose,” according to the administration.

The theater workers explained they made the knots to raise the rope off the stage floor while it was being refinished.

“If the purpose of the knot-tying was to secure the ends of the rope to get them off the floor and out of the way so floor refinishers could work, why were chairs left on the floor?” the administration asked.

“Why does the technical director for a performance theater not have an adequate knowledge of knotting and ask stage workers to teach him, by his own description, a rarely used knot?”

Laraway gave The Commercial Appeal his account of what happened.

“I was working with a gentleman I had never worked with before and we were talking about how to tie different knots. I asked him if he knew how to tie a bowline and he said yes. Then I asked him if he knew how to tie a hangman’s noose, and I showed him.

“… There were actually six ropes hanging there, but only three were nooses because it was the end of the day and we didn’t want to finish tying the others.”

GPAC’s entire staff, including artistic manager Tania Castroverde Moskalenko, stood behind the employees in a closed meeting with Lawton, Laraway said.

While a hangman’s noose is not typically used in theater rigging, local theater officials say versions of the knots have other common uses.

Jay Morris, the new technical director at Playhouse on the Square, said his main concern about seeing a noose backstage would involve safety.

“It’s like any other slipknot in that you could get your hand or your neck caught in it and it could cinch up on you,” Morris said.

“Personally, if I saw one, the first thing that popped into my head wouldn’t be the racial implications but the unsafeness of it.

“Of course,” he added, “I’m also new to the South.”

(Contact Christopher Blank and Lela Garlington of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at www.commercialappeal.com.)