The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

Two weeks ago I remembered Matthew Shepard.  I’ve sort of been remembering him every day since.  Mrs. Shepard’s book is one that has the ability to touch the hearts and minds of many people, just as her advocacy work and public speaking have done over the past ten years.  This weekend Jeremy got wind that Judy Shepard was signing copies of her book and he was kind enough to leave what he was doing at HRC’s action center and go over to the Mayflower to buy a copy for me.  No kinder gift.

Judy Shepard participated in Sunday’s National Equality March.  You can [barely] see her here, in the center background of this photo I took outside HRC’s headquarters the morning of the march:

Mrs. Shepard was also present last night in New York for the world premier of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, an Epilogue.  This play, by the Tectonic Theater Project, follows up on its original groundbreaking work, The Laramie Project.  Ten years after traveling to Laramie, WY the first time — in the immediate aftermath of Matt Shepard’s murder — members of the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Wyoming.  They reinterviewed many of the people they met in the late 90s, as well as new residents — including university students, faculty, and staff, law enforcement officers, public officials, and other ordinary citizens.  These voices provide the backbone for Act 1 of the play, and continue in supporting roles through Act 2, which is anchored by three new additions to the Epilogue: Matt’s killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, as well as his mother.

We saw the DC production by the company from Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre. Coming away from it I found myself with a renewed appreciation for the Arts (writ large).  Working in a university I often find myself talking with students who think (and this is often and obviously a direct influence of their parents) that value in education lies only in the areas of business, political science and international affairs (this is DC after all), law, and medicine.  Unfortunately, the common implication here is that these are disciplines the value of which must come at the expense of the Arts and Humanities.  Many students see no value in the work they are asked to do in rhetoric and composition, art history, or literature.

Watching The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, I was struck anew by the power and vitality of the Arts.  The play is a dramatic reading, so the important intersections become perhaps more apparent: it’s performance, it’s light and sound, it’s poetry and fiction and non-fiction; it’s story.  It’s aesthetics — beauty, sexuality, affection, reflection, hindsight, love, hate, acceptance, remorse.  It’s memory and consciousness — the past, present, and future — wrapped up in a single package that can’t exist in such a powerful or beautiful way in any other discipline I can imagine.

Having seen the play last night, seeing stories like this today makes the work of the players — the playwrights and the actors around the world, in addition to the work of Judy and Dennis Shepard, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Human Rights Campaign, activists from around the country and members of Congress who are working to pass Federal Hate Crimes Legislation — all the more evident and poignant.  At one point during the play one of the actors says that, as of this reading, no federal hate crimes legislation has been passed — this in spite of all the hard work of people who are mentioned and represented in the play.  We hear Judy Shepard’s voice as she bemoans the fact that even after a decade, after all the work, violence against the queer community and the murders continue, through three administrations, and we still don’t have equal protections under the law.

On the way home Jeremy remarked that once the Hate Crimes Bill does pass, that line in the play will be outdated.  I thought about this, and here is my hope: that the line will be amended.  That the play will be able to say that, as of this reading, the Federal Hate Crimes Bill (The Matthew Shepard Act) was signed into law on thus and such a date by President Barack Obama.  This way, the play will reflect history: both the moral outrage and heartache of Judy Shepard and the other people interviewed for the play who have worked tirelessly for the gay community and for the successful passage of these laws, and the fact that they, after so many years, finally succeeded.  That would truly make this amazing production an Epilogue for the ages.

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