In 1998 in rural Wyoming, Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence by two local men, brutally beaten, and left to die. After languishing for several days in a coma, 21-year-old Shepard did die, igniting outrage and a national dialogue about homophobia, civil rights, and violence. That watershed moment was brilliantly and movingly captured in the play The Laramie Project, created by Moisés Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project, who traveled to Laramie to interview hundreds of residents about the incident, letting their words form the script. The Laramie Project has since become one of the most performed productions in American theater.
Ten years after the Matthew Shepard murder, the company returned to Laramie to find out, in the words of Kaufman “what had or had not changed” about the town. They re-interviewed many of the townspeople whose words had been crafted into the original production. The latest result is Laramie: 10 Years Later.
For its premiere at the New York Theater Workshop in downtown Manhattan, Laramie: 10 Years Later was read by the actors who originally performed The Laramie Project in 2000 (including coauthors Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber) and have not been onstage together since. Each of the eight performers onstage for this one-night-only preview of the material read multiple roles, once again inhabiting the personas of actual Laramie residents as they discussed the impact of the Shepard murder. Ten years on, some things have changed for the better, and certain attitudes seem frozen in time.
The fence that young Matthew was tortured on is gone, as is the Fireside bar where he had the misfortune to encounter two cold-blooded killers. There has been some progress: The University of Wyoming now hosts an annual Shepard Symposium on social justice, and the university also dedicated a memorial bench in Matthew’s honor this fall. And yet, Wyoming still has no hate-crimes legislation.
The cast in performance
Additionally, according to 10 Years Later, there is lingering anger over a tawdry 20/20 segment that depicted the crime as a drug deal gone awry. The residents of this rural American town have been forced by tragedy to examine their values and their beliefs. “Shame is a funny thing," says Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who first arrived to the brutal crime scene. “It makes you look real hard at yourself." Thankfully, the new material is not without some needed levity. Explains Jedadiah Schultz, “The entire shape of Laramie has changed; we have a Chili’s now!”
In its current, unfinished state, the epilogue runs approximately 35 minutes. It’s undecided whether the new material will be added to Project’s current final act, or be performed as a separate coda to the script. The final product is slated to be completed and performed in 2009. It is sure to be a powerful examination of the lasting repercussions of that horrible night in windy, rural Wyoming. In the words of Officer Fluty, who cut the wire that had bound Matthew to the fence, “In life the man was so small, but his legacy was huge.”