Revisiting The Laramie Project
At the time of the premiere of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later EDGE spoke to Moises Kaufman about the work he and members of the Tectonic Project had written from their experiences revisiting Laramie, WY. 10 years after the death of Matthew Shepard. The show's premiere took place on the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death.
On November 11 the Tectonic Project begins a four performance run of both The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later at the Annenberg Center. Last year EDGE spoke to Kaufman about the project.
In the years since his Matthew Shepard’s death on October 12, 1998, his name has become shorthand for the still very real possibility of homophobic violence.
Shepard was robbed, tortured and left to die tied to a fence on a road outside of Laramie, Wyoming by two men - Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney - he had met at local bar. The man who found Shepard the next day thought he was a scarecrow. Taken to a hospital, he died of his injuries two days later. His death mobilized LGBTs across the country with marches and calls for Hate Crime legislation. (Since there are no Hate Crime statutes in Wyoming, Henderson and McKinney could not be charged with a hate crime.)
In the ensuing years Shepard’s mother Judy spearheaded the drive to expand current Federal Hate Crimes law to include crimes against LGBT individuals. Over the past ten years numerous attempts to amend the law have failed. In 2007 a bill bearing Shepard’s name was introduced, but failed when President Bush promised to veto the legislation. Last October (shortly after this interview was conducted) Congress passed the The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This measure expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.)
As for the state of hate crimes, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to Congress earlier in 2009 when the bill was reintroduced saying that "more than 77,000 hate crime incidents were reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, or ’nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade.’" Holder emphasized that one of his "highest personal priorities ... is to do everything I can to ensure this critical legislation finally becomes law." (The re-introduced bill passed both houses of Congress and is currently attached, in an amended version, to major defense legislation pending approval.)
Watch this preview of the Tectonic Project’s The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later
Returning to Laramie
What also has kept Shepard’s name in the public consciousness is The Laramie Project, the theater piece devised after his death by the Tectonic Theater Project under the leadership of Moises Kaufman. What Kaufman and his Project members did was conduct interviews of the inhabitants of Laramie about their feelings towards Shepard’s murder and its subsequent effect on the town. The piece premiered in Denver in 2002, followed by productions at regional theaters and colleges throughout the country. In 2006 was turned into an award-winning telefilm aired on HBO.
Tectonic Theater Project revisited its groundbreaking work with The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. When it premiered last October productions took place simultaneously in over 150 theaters across the country.
The production is based on content from follow-up interviews that acknowledge what effect the passage of time has had on Laramie and its residents.
EDGE recently spoke with Kaufman-who wrote the original script with fellow Tectonic members Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber.
Returning to Laramie, Kaufman said brought on "a whole range of reactions. (Some asked) why are you bringing this up again? We’re done with this; why are you bringing this up again? Others said, ’Oh, how wonderful you’re back. We really need to continue this conversation.’"
Such mixed reaction from Laramie illustrates the toll Shepard’s legacy has taken. To many the town will forever be associated with the murder-and, according, to Kaufman, has tainted its residents as homophobic, despite what their actual feelings may be.
We went to find out what had changed," Kaufman said when asked why they returned. "But how do you measure change? Is it in the number of laws passed, or in the personal changes which occurred; or in the number of classes they give; or in the number of times people stop making jokes about gay people?"
What they ended up finding, the playwright explained, is similar to what they first discovered when they initially came to Laramie: "A complicated picture. There is not hate crime legislation passed on the state level; but at the same time, we interviewed the police officers who investigate the case and they told us before the case, they were the ones making homophobic jokes; part of the problem." Working on the Shepard case "changed their perception. They became very strong activists for hate crime legislation and have flown to Washington, DC many times" to advocate for the passage of national laws.
Kaufman also notes there’s a social justice symposium at the University which "talks to students every year; and an AIDS walk that ends up in the cowboy bar (in which Shepard was approached by his attackers). These are not small changes."
Kaufman notes that many have, almost since the time of the incident, tried "to rewrite history; to say it wasn’t a hate crime, but a robbery or drug deal gone bad. We found that had spread quite broadly, and it was hard to hear."
Major examples of this revisionism include a 2004 report by Elizabeth Vargas on the ABC news magazine 20/20 that claimed Shepard’s murder was a drug deal gone bad, not a homophobic response to Shepard. As recently as this past Spring such theories were used to argue against the passage of the bill that bears his name in Congress. The most egregious example came when North Carolina Republican representative Virginia Foxx told Congress that the Shepard murder was "very unfortunate incident," and that "we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay... It’s really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing (hate crimes) bills."
As for whether he and Tectonic will continue to travel back to Laramie in the coming years, Kaufman cannot say-but he does recall the words of Jerome Robbins, who was asked a similar question upon the opening of West Side Story. "Somebody said, ’congratulations, your work is done.’ Robbins said I didn’t finish my work, I just ran out of time." And even if this epilogue is the project’s final word, Kaufman notes "I do feel the play has really allowed for a certain conversation to occur, and that I am very proud of."
The Laramie Project Residency runs from November 11 - 13, 2010 at the the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA. For more information visit the Tectonic Theatre Project website.