The Laramie Project Cycle
Sitting as it always did at the crossroads of journalism and art, the Tectonic Theater Project’s play "The Laramie Project," originally premiering in Denver in 2000, was waiting for a follow up all these years. While no sequel could give us the answers we wanted or the closure we could wish for, "The Laramie Project Ten Years Later," a 2009 work based on interviews conducted in 2008, around the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, is a worthy continuation of its original. The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s restrained production, featuring original Tectonic Theater members, has moments of humor and delight, and a few surprises.
As a college freshman, Shepard was only getting started in life when he was brutally killed on the outskirts of Laramie, and his death became a touch point that allowed him to stand in for all those who were victims of hate crimes, before and after the phrase went into common usage.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it tends to shadow the man underneath the story -- one character in "Ten Years Later" describes this as the difference between "Matthew Shepard," icon, and "Matt," her friend on campus. Small wonder that "cultural depictions of Matthew Shepard" has its own Wikipedia page.
It’s impossible not to wonder what Shepard would have made of the developments outlined in "Ten Years Later": A federal hate-crime prevention act bearing his name (along with that of James Byrd Jr., killed in Texas in 1998) was signed into law in 2009.
Wyoming’s Defense of Marriage-style legislation failed in the House of Representatives, thanks in part to Rep. Cathy Connolly, the house’s first openly gay member (and a former University of Wyoming professor). Laramie High School even has a gay-straight alliance.
When pressed to be candid, however, some residents of Laramie that Moises Kaufman and his actors spoke to didn’t focus on these markers of progress when asked about the Matthew Shepard case.
A few brought up a "20/20" episode (partially recreated onstage, with Mercedes Herrero playing Elizabeth Vargas) intimating that perpetrators and victim were involved with drugs, contradicting court testimony. Others expressed the desire that those marking the Shepard anniversary would "just let it go," as the audience around me recoiled at the notion.
It’s because of works like "The Laramie Project," in part, that we can’t just "let it go" when it comes to Matthew Shepard, and within the variety of reactions such a comment provokes lies the genius of Kaufman’s work in using their own words, for good or ill.
The bravery of Connolly (as portrayed by Barbara Pitts), the benediction of a priest who is a friend of Aaron McKinney (Greg Pierotti, who for the purposes of the show also portrays McKinney in a chilling reversal), the isolation of Kaufman himself (played by Michael Winther); all these performances stay with us, but their backing in reality makes them stick. Kaufman’s direction (along with Leigh Fondakowski) gets out of the way of the actors and the audience to give way to the words, and it is right.