On October 8, 1998, a bicyclist came across what appeared to be a scarecrow tied to a split-rail fence in a remote area east of Laramie, Wyoming. Roughly 18 hours earlier, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had tied Matthew Shepard to that fence and left him for dead. They had abducted him from a local bar before viciously assaulting him. Shepard died from his injuries a few days later, and the violence he suffered shocked the world and left a lasting impact that is felt to this day.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Shepard’s death, local radio host Judy Reeves approached Theatre Suburbia about directing a production of The Laramie Project, which Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project created a few years after the murder. “I do a radio show at KPFT, and I
run a show every October commemorating Shepard’s death,” Reeves explains. “With all that’s happened since then with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, I thought, ‘Somebody’s going to wake up in September and realize that this is the 25th anniversary, and they’re going to be clamoring to do this play.’ But I thought of it first, and that’s very important to me.”
The Laramie Project has an unusual structure in that the actors have no real dialogue to learn. The entire script is lifted from over 200 interviews that Kaufman and Tectonic Theater members conducted with 60 people in Laramie over several months. “There are no conversations—somebody sticks a microphone in [an actor’s] face, they answer a question or two, and then they’re gone.”
The result is a compelling piece of stagecraft that requires eight actors to breathe life into the actual words spoken by those Laramie citizens regarding the aftermath of the murder and the trial of the two young men accused of killing Shepard. “I am exactly following Tectonic’s idea and thoughts,” Reeves says, “but I added two people out of necessity, [to cover the 82 characters]. We got it all situated, and everybody’s happy, but the line loads are pretty heavy. And for a community theater, it’s a really big thing.”
In 2009, a little over a decade after Shepard died, President Obama signed the country’s first federal hate-crimes legislation—the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Although the new law ushered in a brief period of optimism that hate crimes would decrease, the Trump era changed all of that. “I want people out there to see this play because of its historical value, [but also] to find out that we’re not as far ahead as we think we are, and we’re losing ground rapidly,” Reeves emphasizes. “It’s almost too late to open your eyes to that. I’m 73 years old, and I don’t have time to open my eyes too many more times. The young people need to step up and start protecting their own rights. This play might wake them up to that.”
Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father and the co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, believes The Laramie Project highlights a truth that LGBTQ Americans confront daily. “We still have a two-tier system of citizenship. You have access to all rights in this country if you’re straight, and only part of the rights of an American citizen if you’re LGBTQ. I just don’t understand that as a father—why they’re not equal. It really pisses me off that these kids have no equal chance to succeed.
“The other thing that’s important is that [although] the play is basically focused on what happened to Matt, if you take ‘LGBTQ’ out of it and you put in a race or a religion, [it could be another] identical play,” Shepard adds. “It’s all about hate, discrimination, and pushing down and pushing away those who aren’t considered equal.”
Reeves praises the enduring power of The Laramie Project to teach audiences about love and acceptance. “Twenty-five years after the death of Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Jr., we still need to learn to cohabitate. The people of Laramie, Wyoming, are to be congratulated because I [can still] hear them, in the script, say that we have a lot to learn about tolerance and love.”
The Laramie Project runs September 15 through October 14, with a special Friday, September 22, performance sponsored by the National Leather Association, which will be selling September 22 tickets to members of the LGBTQ community to ensure that they have a safe space to see this production.
WHAT: 25th-anniversary production of The Laramie Project
WHEN: September 15–October 14
WHERE: Theatre Suburbia, 5201 Mitchelldale St.
Info: TheatreSuburbia.org or (713) 682-3525
The Matthew Shepard Foundation
The nonprofit is expanding their outreach to the transgender community.
For almost 25 years, the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s mission has been “to amplify the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people.” Following in the footsteps of Shepard, the foundation has consistently sought to make the world a more caring and just place through civil-rights advocacy and efforts to change hearts and minds.
“Everybody can see something of Matt in themselves, or in somebody they’re close to,” says Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father and the Foundation’s co-founder. “He wanted to work overseas for the State Department and bring to other countries what he thought he had in the way of equal rights, responsibilities, and privileges in this country.”
Shepard is dismayed by the wave of state legislation taking aim at the trans community. “The reason we’re now focusing on the trans community is because that’s where most of the hate and the evil laws exist,” notes Shepard. “Because they want to start telling a parent how to raise their kid, what I’d like to do is sue them for child support. If you’re going to tell me how to raise my child, you must be one of the parents, so you should be paying child support because you’re such an expert. I also want to see their medical and psychology degrees to show me why they’re such experts.”
Shepard sees these attacks against the trans community as nothing more than fear-mongering. “They’re just doing this because they have no other issues. Gun violence, climate change, the war in Ukraine with Russia—they have nothing to say about that. The same thing with the book banning—it’s a sad situation when you can’t read the book that you want.”
He’s also had it with evangelical Christians and groups like Moms for Liberty, who describe the LGBTQ community as “groomers.” “Aren’t they trying to ‘groom’ everybody to [interpret the Bible] their way? They’re grooming people to be hateful and to exclude me and my community.”
For more info, visit matthewshepard.org.