February 23 – When BAM announced that it would be presenting The Laramie Project Cycle – the Tectonic Theater Project’s original 1998 docudrama about the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and an epilogue that takes place ten years later – my first thought was: why now, why so soon, didn’t everybody already see this show and/or the HBO movie? Then I realized that just because I saw it four times doesn’t mean everyone else has – maybe it has new relevance because of the focus on bullying in recent years. But I mostly thought, well, I’ve seen it plenty, don’t have to see it again. Somehow when I read Charles Isherwood’s rave review in the NY Times, though, I felt called to revisit the material, if only to come full circle with it myself.
And indeed, the show was very good, very moving – I was in tears almost continuously throughout The Laramie Project, sometimes making sounds involuntarily, even though I was trying not to sob uncontrollably. I guess there’s such a sense of identification – in that time and place, it could have been me who ended up tied to a fence and beaten to death. But I admire the craft of the piece so much, not just the writing and the staging but also the way the performers perform their own experience of going to Wyoming and interviewing people. And I found that I felt surprisingly emotionally invested in the original cast: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, and Barbara Pitts. Seeing them again brought back my own elaborate history with the show.
I flew out to Denver in February 2000 for the world premiere of the show at the Denver Center Theatre Company. I interviewed the Tectonic ensemble for an article for The Advocate and made especially warm connections with director Moises Kaufman, writer Leigh Fondakowski, and actor Greg Pierotti. I took my youngest sister to the opening night performance, where we sat next to Zackie Salmon, a Laramie resident portrayed in the show, and met Matt Galloway, the gabby bartender who was one of the last people to see Matthew Shepard alive. When the show moved to New York a few months later and opened at the Union Square Theatre Off-Broadway, I wrote “Town in a Mirror,” a cover story about it for American Theatre. And then two years later, when amateur rights became available and hundreds of high schools across the country started staging The Laramie Project, I wrote an article about that for the NY Times’ Arts & Leisure section. I attended a high school production in New Jersey with a posse that included Kaufman and Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Matthew Shepard who is also a character in the play.
Here are a couple of key passages from that Times article:
The Laramie Project has entered the mainstream of American culture the way few plays do. Through a combination of its topic, its timing, and the artistry with which it was created, it has become more than a docu-drama fleshing out a news story. Tapping the essential function of theater since it began in ancient Greece, it has become a catalyst for the community to discuss among themselves something of urgent importance — in this case, hate crimes, homophobia, and the treatment of difference in American society…
The Laramie Project is ultimately a meeting between two communities — a community of speakers (the residents of Laramie) and a community of listeners (the Tectonic Theater members who interviewed them). As a theater event, it models a way of speaking tough truths and listening respectfully that human beings crave but that we hardly ever see anywhere in public, especially in the news media, where sound-bites pass for insight and competing monologues masquerade as debate. The play doesn’t deliver any message that can be summed up in a bumper sticker, but the essence of it is captured in the tag line Mr. Kaufman chose for the HBO film: “Each one carries a piece of the story.”
During intermission at BAM, I ran into Moises and got to have a little chat with him. And after Part I, I talked briefly with Michael Winther, whom I know slightly through mutual friends. Not an original member of the Tectonic Theater Project, he told me he stepped into the show at the very last minute, the night before rehearsals began. He plays Moises and Dennis Shepard and a whole lot of other people and does a very good job with many different accents. (There’s one other actor who wasn’t in the original cast, Libby King, who plays Romaine Patterson and others.)
The second part of the cycle, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, was not nearly as emotionally affecting. When it was over, the audience didn’t automatically leap to its collective feet. Walking away afterwards, I started out thinking that it felt a little thin, an extended footnote, a history lesson, a journalistic follow-up more than a free-standing theater piece. And certainly compared to the original work, not nearly so original. And yet…I learned a lot from it that I didn’t know. There is a way that, by now, if you know anything about Matthew Shepard’s killing, you probably feel like you know everything about it, largely based on information conveyed in The Laramie Project. But when the company went back to Wyoming ten years later, they discovered that the narrative had shifted. Younger people only vaguely knew who Shepard was. Even older people who’d been around at the time of the original incident had come to believe that the murder that made their town internationally notorious was not a hate crime based on the killers’ homophobia but a drug-related robbery gone wrong. How did this narrative get implanted? Largely through the agency of a sleazy story broadcast on the TV newsmagazine 20/20, which claimed to have new information based on interviews with the killers in prison. Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project were deeply disturbed that the facts of the case could be so easily distorted and supplanted in the minds of the public, even the local population. So Ten Years Later is partly a meditation on irresponsible journalism and partly about how denial sets in to erase and correct facts that don’t match a community’s (or an individual’s) self-perception.
It seems clear from the theater piece that the artists, and many of the gay Laramie residents they interviewed, were attached to a political agenda promoting hate crime legislation – that is, laws that dictate harsher penalties for crimes driven by bigotry. I have mixed feelings about pushing for hate crime legislation – I think all horrible crimes such as murder should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. As someone in the play says, “If you kill somebody, you probably hate ’em.” The play did cause me to understand one part of the reasoning, which has to do with forceful public education – it’s not the only way to teach that racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other prejudices are unacceptable, but it may be a powerful one.
The other question that drives Ten Years Later is: has anything changed? There is a certain amount of hand-wringing that homophobia still exists, but there are also some surprising revelations of positive change. A lesbian university professor who figured in The Laramie Project got elected to the state House of Representatives, and when a vote came up on whether to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage, the measure failed, thanks to persuasive testimony from two conservative white male Republicans. And of course President Obama did sign into law hate crimes legislation named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. (the black man lynched by three white supremacists in Texas).
Theatrically, the high points of Ten Years Later are the scenes depicting jailhouse visits with the two men convicted of murdering Matthew Shepard, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The lengths the company went to in order to obtain these interviews, their efforts to view these guys with open eyes and open hearts, and the performances in these scenes by Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber are all tremendously admirable. The scene between McKinney (played by Pierotti) and Pierotti (played by Paris) will stick with me for a long time. After Pierotti has spoken with McKinney’s spiritual counselor Father Roger, who has lectured the actor at length about having compassion for the murderer’s process of remorse, we’re prepared for a scene of redemption and forgiveness. Instead, we learn that in prison in Virginia McKinney has been reading lots of books about Germany and has acquired a giant swastika tattoo on his arm and one across his back saying NAZI. He expresses irritation at Judy Shepard because “she can’t shut up about it.” Pierotti/Paris quietly reminds him, “You did brutally murder her son.” Then McKinney says to the actor, “So you gettin’ any pussy down here?” Ashen, the actor says, “Aaron, I’m gay.” The convict says, “Yeah, I thought so when I first saw you, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” That’s the amazing thing about documentaries, isn’t it? You couldn’t make this stuff up.