One of the standout images in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later—Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project's sequel to their docudrama about Matthew Shepard's murder—was the lack of a very significant one.
The image I'm talking about is that fence, the one on which Shepard's body was tied and left to die. It is talked about several times in the epilogue, but only as a symbol that has long since been removed by the property's owners who didn't want trespassing from visitors seeking it out, as a shrine of sorts. But as one character points out, residents of Laramie still take out-of-towners to see the area where the fence once stood, because "it's what we're known for."
What a profound statement.
Laramie, Wyoming, may have beautiful big skies, striking wide-open spaces and coal in spades, but it will forever be branded by the horrific crime in early October 1998, when two men robbed and severely beat a gay university student and strapped him on that fence. Shepard died a week later, on Oct. 12, and has become an important symbol for hate crime legislation and the contemporary gay rights movement.
After the crime, Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to the Equality State (that's Wyoming's official nickname because of its trailblazing history with women's rights) and emerged with the play The Laramie Project, which has since received myriad productions all over the world and is still a popular title in colleges and high schools. It was also made into an award-winning film for HBO. To mark the decade since the tragedy, the team revisited the city, its residents and other folks whom they first interviewed 10 years ago. The result was a beautiful sequel that premiered as a staged reading simultaneously in 150 theaters last night, Oct. 12—the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death.
The Dallas Theater Center was the North Texas participant, and gave a moving reading of the script, directed by Joel Ferrell. The cast featured Fort Worth's Tony-winning actress Betty Buckley; representatives of other Metroplex theaters (Bruce DuBose of Undermain Theatre and Terry Martin of WaterTower Theatre, which staged the first play in 2003 and held a reading of it on Oct. 11) and educational institutions (Michael Connolly of Southern Methodist University and Gail Cronauer of Collin College); Good Morning Texas co-host Robert McCollum; DTC acting company members Matthew Gray and Christina Vela; and local actors Rhonda Boutte, Jeffrey Schmidt and Maxey Whitehead.
The event was historic because the introduction to the reading in New York City was broadcast live via Internet feed to all of the satellite theaters. Audiences around the world witnessed speeches from actress Glenn Close (so, Dallas got two former Norma Desmonds at one event); Matthew's mother, Judy Shepard; and the leader of the play's writing team, Moisés Kaufman. If that kind of unity wasn't enough to convince of the power of theater (expanded through the miracles of modern technology), then the script and revisiting these characters—all of whom are real people—certainly was.
In his talk, Kaufman noted that Laramie is a town at war with itself, and the events of 1998 have proved to be as divisive for some of its residents as it was unifying for a national movement.
Although it was noted that the town has had a successful AIDS Walk for six years and that Drag Queen Bingo is popular at one of the bars frequented by cowboys, the University of Wyoming still doesn't have domestic partner benefits and more than a few residents are convinced that Shepard's murder was not motivated by homophobia, but was merely a robbery and drug-deal gone bad.
That belief may have been spurred by a controversial 2004 report on the popular TV news magazine 20/20, which concluded that the convicted murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson did not commit the act because they hated gays. That, along with interviews with the editor of the Laramie Boomerang, the town's newspaper, demonstrated that even the mainstream media can sometimes skew a story. (I know—shocking.)
Thankfully, the Tectonic Theater Project was able to catch us up. In revisiting the Project, the members scored interviews with McKinney and Henderson in prison, and the revelations from those conversations were as revealing as they were harrowing. That, folks, is true journalism.
The Dallas Theater Center captured these and many other moments through terrific, highly memorable performances from the entire cast, with standout turns by Connolly, Martin, Whitehead, Schmidt and Buckley, who, when playing Judy Shepard near the end, fought back tears. An engaging audience talk-back followed, as it did in theaters in all 50 states and such international locations as Madrid, Tel Aviv and Hong Kong.
One audience member, an SMU student, noted that she was too young 11 years ago to remember Shepard's death, but has become acquainted with him and this story through The Laramie Project. When was the last time a play generated such discourse?
Bravo to all the theaters, especially in secondary education facilities such as Addison's Greenhill School, who have staged The Laramie Project over the years. Congratulations to Kaufman and his colleagues for reminding us of one of the most important functions of theater: To provoke thought and encourage discussion.
And thanks, Dallas Theater Center, for letting North Texas share in a monumental event.