Theatre New West hosts Judy Shepard for ‘The Laramie Project.’
by Donalevan Maines • Photo by Brian Hudnut
This is a major event,” director Joe Watts says about Theatre New West and Holocaust Museum Houston’s production of The Laramie Project that opens on Thursday, June 24, during Gay Pride Month.
The play is edited from interviews that members of Tectonic Theater Project conducted with the people of Laramie, Wyoming, after gay-bashers savagely beat young Matthew Shepard and left him to die in an act of hate that became a national symbol of intolerance. None other than Matthew’s mother-turned-activist, Judy Shepard, speaks to the audience prior to the performance on Saturday, July 10. Our town’s history-making leader, mayor Annise Parker, has been invited to introduce Shepard.
“The play stands on its own,” says Watts. “But to present it at such a prestigious place as the Holocaust Museum and the honor of Judy Shepard attending our production is overwhelming. We all know it’s not just another production, but one we will remember forever.”
During my Mother’s Day interview with Watts, it dawns on me how Shepard has become the LGBT community’s honorary mother. In response to her son’s murder, Shepard and her husband Dennis formed the Matthew Shepard Foundation to advance “social justice, diversity awareness and education, and equality for homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual people.”
In 2007, the Shepards lobbied on behalf of a bill that would have expanded federal hate-crimes legislation to include sexual orientation. Then-president George W. Bush threatened to veto the bill if it passed. It didn’t.
Last September saw the publication of Shepard’s memoir, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. In October, Shepard addressed the National Equality March in Washington DC, saying, “I’m here today because I lost my son to hate.” She added, “No one has the right to tell my son whether or not he can work anywhere, whether or not he can live wherever he wants to live, and whether or not he can be with the person he loves. No one has that right. We are all Americans. We are equal Americans, gay, straight, or whatever.” (At the same rally calling for marriage equality and an end to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, singer Lady Gaga gave President Obama a shout-out: “Are you listening? We will continue to push you and your administration to bring your words of promise to reality.”)
On October 22, 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 for being gay, and the African-American man whom white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, tied to a truck, dragged, and decapitated in 1998. Six days later, Obama signed the bill into law, which, among other things, expands the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
On June 27, Shepard serves as grand marshal of New York City’s 41st annual LGBT Pride March.
While in Houston, Shepard also speaks at the Max Kaplan Summer Institute for Educators, scheduled for July 8 at the Holocaust Museum. She signs her book in the lobby before speaking to the Laramie Project audience on July 10.
Watts is directing eight actors—Derrick Brent II, Brian Chambers, Nina Garcia, Alyssum Genthon, Nora Hahn, Jordan Jaffe, Brian Jones, and Terry Smith—who each play at least six different characters. “It’s a daunting challenge to direct this piece with its myriad cast of characters,” says Watts. “For the actors as well, it’s both a challenge and a stretch. This cast has the passion for the play that I do.
“The best production I’ve seen of the play was in Galveston, where the actors weren’t so polished, so they came off as real people,” Watts says. “The worst production I’ve seen had Equity actors who just seemed to be showing off. We’re not going to have that happening.”
He adds that live vocals and a surprise addition to the staging “will make this like no other Laramie Project you’ve ever seen, and probably ever will.”
The Laramie Project
Where: Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline.
When: Eight performances, June 24–July 24; opening Thursday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m., then running June 26, July 10–11, 15–17, and 22–24.
Curtain: Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Sunday matinee at 6 p.m.
Tickets: $25 (seniors 62 & over and students with ID $20).
Donalevan Maines also writes about the Tony Awards in this issue of OutSmart magazine.