The Laramie Project Ten Years Later

by on October 13, 2009  •  In Criminal law

By Guest Blogger Marc Poirier

Last night I was fortunate to attend one of the world premieres of The Laramie Project Ten Years Later, at Alice Tully Hall in New York City.  I say "one of the world premieres" because this new play, about the community of Laramie, Wyoming, ten years after the  brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, premiered simultaneously in 150 venues, in all 50 states and 14 countries around the world.  The performance was preceded by a simulcast from Alice Tully Hall to all the 150 theaters, with brief addresses by Glenn Close, by Judy Shepard, who is Matthew Shepard's mother, and by Moises Kaufman, the play's director.  There  followed 150 distinct performances of the play, by 150 different companies.  The 150 theaters were then relinked for a half-hour session of Q&A, live from New York and remote by twitter.  I will return to this remarkable melange of local and global.

The Laramie Project Ten Years Later stands on the shoulders of and is in some ways a sequel to an earlier play, The Laramie Project.  Both plays were written by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, based on interviews as well as found texts such as letters, media reports, and transcripts of legal proceedings.  In the aftermath of the brutal attack on University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard — he was robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead on October 6, 1998, and died on October 12, 1998 — the city of Laramie, Wyoming, became a focus of national media attention.  The members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie , where they interviewed members of the community and observed events around the trial and sentencing of his murderers.  The Laramie Project– the earlier play is the one I am still taking about — is comprised of dozens of characters, including the actors themeselves as they interact with the citizens of Laramie.  It is a compelling story, and one that pretty much effectively plays itself. I have seen it performed by my local high school theater as well as in a slick HBO production.  In important ways, I favor local high school productions, for reasons that will become apparent.

It would be easy to say that the earlier play is about the murder of Matthew Shepard. I think this is inaccurate.  The play is about how a specific community reacts to a specific incident of violence and murder.  The citizens of Laramie, its clergy, the local and national media, the police, the apparatus of the law, the witnesses, the murderers themselves, all tell stories about what happened, who those involved really were, and who the community of Laramie is, as reflected in violence and in the community's reaction to violence. The presence of the interviewers/actors as characters in the play only serves to remind the audience, over and over, of the artifactual nature of the story being retold, first to the actors, then on the live stage to the audience.

The new play, The Laramie Project Ten Years Later, was born of return trips by the members of the Project to Laramie to investigate what Laramie was like now.  The same techniques were deployed.  Once again, the play is entirely a collage of interviews and found texts. I hesitate to call the new play simply a sequel, though.  It seems to me not so much about what happened next as about the natural evolution of the process of telling stories about a community's identity in the wake of violence. I will identify here three themes that stood out — revisionism, the role of law, and the interplay of local and global, informal and formal, forms of storytelling and reenactment.

Ten years ago, for many characters, talking to outsiders about the murder seemed important, either as a personal catharsis or to establish what kind of place Laramie was. Now many characters seem to want to put the whole incident behind them.  They do not want to acknowledge that, whatever else Laramie might be about, its identity is also now permanently marked with the murder of Matthew Shepard. While the Project is back in Laramie, a local newspaper editorial denounces the group as misrepresenting and hijacking the true spirit of the community.  At a cocktail party, one resident after another confirms that the murder was not a hate crime at all, no, but merely a robbery gone wrong under the influence of methamphetamine.  This version was bolstered by an earlier expose by ABC's 20-20, which also argued that the murder was not a hate crime. Just as ABC had interviewed murderer Aaron McKinney, in the new play we see a member of the Project interviewing McKinney.  Part of McKinney's long, confused, rambling conversation suggests that he now thinks he killed Shepard because Shepard was a sexual predator.  His current prison environment is honorable, it seems, and it allows violence against sexual predators. 

Meanwhile, many other residents insist that Shepard's murder *was* a hate crime.  They are shocked and angered by what they see as dishonest attempts to exonerate the community.  They see the alternate versions of the murder as some kind of extended cover-up.  For example, the police who were invovled in the investigation point out that the version of the murder exculpatory to the community has no basis in the facts they discovered and that were introduced at the trial.  Citizens and the visiting members of the Project alike are outraged that these facts are being obliterated.  A folklorist from the state university explains in dry but chilling academic terms the way in which a community uses the form of rumor to ignore facts, close up gaps and retell its identity.  

Many of those outraged by the murder also insist that the community address the crime, not only by telling what they see as the true version of it, but by responding formally through law.  The demand for legal responses as a way of fixing the story of Matthew Shepard has occurred at many scales, as the later play shows.  At the local level, we learn, as the result of agitation by four faculty and administrators, the University of Wyoming ten years later adopts a domestic partnership policy — though by a 6-5 vote and with a provision barring implementation until the University's finances improve, because of the supposed additional expense incurred by domestic partner benefits.  At the statewide level, one lesbian motivated by the murder gets herself elected to the state legislature, and observes — presented through the words of three remarkably different Republican state legislators — the debate and eventual defeat of a state Defense of Marriage Act.  In the play, the character of Judy Shepard calls for an enactment of a federal hate crimes bill.  During the long years it has been pending, it was renamed, and it now carries the name of Matthew Shepard.  The character Judy Shepard also explains why she continues the fight for LGBT justice as a way of keeping Matthew Shepard alive — not the young man Matt, who was murdered, but another "Matthew Shepard" who lives on in contested memory, story, and law.

This last scene was especially moving because the real Judy Shepard was right there in the audience. Later, during the post-performance Q&A, she announced that the United States House of Representatives had adopted the Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill just this past Friday, and that she anticipated that it would become law very soon.  The real Judy Shepard's voice quivered with emotion at this moment in just the way that the voice of the stage Judy Shepard had quivered with emotion a few minutes before.  Reality confirmed theater.  Or was it the other way around?

The Laramie Project Ten Years Later helps us to appreciate that calls for legal responses to a hate-motivated murder, ten or eleven years out, are also and intrinsically part of an ongoing struggle to tell and retell a particular history, so as to define the collective identity of a set of communities.  The laws called for — hate crimes legislation, anti-discrimination legislation, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, relationship recognition — all would officilaly recognize a particular verison of who LGBT folk are and who their community is.  The later play helps us to recognize that in the inevitable political process that generates laws in a democracy, new, more just laws are often demanded by telling and retelling stories of injustice and martyrdom, such as the hate crime version of Matthew Shepard's murder.  The scene in which the Wyoming legislature debates a state DOMA is emblematic of the relationship of storytelling, legislation, and identity.  We hear three accounts from the three Republican legislators — (1) "marriage is and always has been between one man and one woman, and furthermore our children will be messed up if we deviate from this practice by failing to define marriage constitutionally in this limiting way"; (2) "my daughter is a lesbian, she and her partner are raising a child, and this amendment would hurt them and people like them to no useful purpose"; and finally (3) delivered by a powerful politician who turns the tide against the amendment, "What would enacting a DOMA say to us and all who are watching us about who we are as the state of Wyoming?"

I will close this blog post with reflections on three moments from the post-performance Q&A.  Someone asked about the difference between theater and media performances, such as the HBO verison of the earlier play.  Several members of the Project responded.  They stressed the importance of local productions, productions in high schools, productions that force live cast members and those who know them and live in the same communities, to deal with the question of LGBT violence and the community's varying responses to it.  This response is spot on.  Live theater, especially local theater, offers an immediacy and access that is obscured when television or film turns performances of critical social dialog into entertainment.  Plus, television and movie are corporate and passive, local theater is small, live, and potentially interactive.   Anyone pretty much can put on a play.  Hence the genius of having 150 simultaneous distinct premiere performances, rather than one authoritative simulcast premiere performance. 

I have had students in my Law and Sexuality seminar read The Laramie Project from beginning to end — not at home alone, but aloud in a group over some three hours, as a class project.  Making them take on the various characters and viewpoints depicted forces them to confront the fact of LGBT-directed violence and the community's stories about violence in a personal way.  It gives them a chance to explore emotionally and empathetically the themes at issues. Not by accident, in the Q&A, Moises Kaufman repeatedly referred to the importance of empathy to the larger project.

Come to think of it, local theater is also represented in another major event of this just past long weekend, the National Equality March.  I was there.  I won't go into details, except to note that Judy Shepard spoke, calling for justice to a crowd of tens of thousands who showed up and marched and listened together.  In the earlier play, the one depicting Laramie immediately after the assault and murder, there were many such public performances of one kind or another — the watch as Matthew Shepard lay dying in a hospital in Fort Collins, parades, demonstrations and counter demonstrations and, last but not least in terms of public theater,the trial and sentencing of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.  

The second Q&A moment involved what was supposed to be the last question, from a member of the live New York audience. He asked how we should understand Aaron McKinney.  Moises Kaufman politely but firmly refused to answer the question.  in the play, McKinney's long conversation is unclear in many respects. Was it a robbery or a hate crime, after all?  What role did Henderson really play?  What should we make of the word "nazi", which McKinney had tattooed on his back while in prison?  McKinney says he feels the wrong kind of remorse; what kind of remorse does he feel?  Kaufman was right to squelch a potentially definitive answer to these questions.  The whole point is that the dialog, about truth and self-deceit, justice and injustice, is always fragile and subject to further conversation and revision.  Much as we would like to fix the violence – either with a final, true meaning, or a final resolution of injustice through new laws — it cannot be fixed, nor can we put and end to the stories we tell about it.

The final question of the evening — which came in under the wire as an extra question, since the members of the Project did not want the last question to be about McKinney — came from an anguished mother in the New York audience.  She pointed out that, despite the apparent impending success of federal hate crimes legislation, a young gay man had been brutally assaulted the night before on the streets of Queens.  (This was the same day as the National Equality March.)  She then asked her fifteen-year-old son to stand up next to her, announced that he was straight, and that it mattered very much to her what kind of world he grew up it.  Judy Shepard (the real one) was on stage at that point, and one could feel the emotional current between the one mother and the other.  It was a moment of extreme empathy, shared by the whoel audience.  This moment could not have been planned, it was electrifying and hugely theatrical, and it was the last moment of the evening.  

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