Click here to read the first installment of Greg Pierotti's biweekly road journal, "On the Road With Laramie."
What a relaxing first rehearsal it was. Here, three of the writers — Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, and I — listen to Mercedes Herrero (in hat) tell a story about her new baby, Xavier, who will be coming on the road with us.Moisés, at left, is directing The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later; Leigh Fondakowski, center, is directing The Laramie Project; and I, (drinking coffee as usual), will be acting in both.
Two weeks later, I am less relaxed. In fact, I am completely freaking out. We are working on part 2. We’re almost halfway through the rehearsal process, and I am wondering how we are ever going to get it all done.
Of course, it’s always like this in our theater company. Ten years ago, on the very day of the world premiere of The Laramie Project at the Denver Center, we rewrote and restaged so much that I had to post a scene list in the wings so the actors could figure out where and who we were supposed to be next. That went pretty well, so I am hoping that our track record is an indication that a bit of chaos is good for the work.
If it is, then this is going to be a really great show, because it’s nothing but chaos right now. I have spoken so many versions of so many scenes that I no longer know which version I am in. If I’m saying the right words, I am standing in the wrong place. If I’m standing in the right place, I am saying the wrong words. If by some miracle I am saying the right words in the right place, I have no idea what any of it means.
Here is one scene where I finally get to sit in the same place and be the same character for few minutes. I play Aaron McKinney, and Mark Berger, at right, plays me. We decided that for this original production of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, I would play Aaron, since I am the only person in the company who has had a direct experience of him.
I met with Aaron at a state penitentiary in Virginia. We covered a lot of ground in the time we spent together. One thing he told me that was noteworthy was that his hatred of homosexuals “mighta played a small part” in the murder of Matthew Shepard. As obvious as this sounds to many of us, it ends up being rather important that he said it.
One of the shocks we encountered when we went back to Laramie after 10 years was that people in the community are changing the narrative of Matthew Shepard’s murder. Obviously, many in Laramie are committed to keeping the facts of Matt’s story alive. Just as many, however, now prefer to understand the murder as a robbery or a drug deal gone awry. While these types of rumors were around the first time we went to Wyoming, many folks in Laramie see a 20/20 story, made six years after the murder took place, as the point where these alternative narratives began to predominate.
Mercedes Herrero (flanked by Amy Resnick and Scott Barrow) portrays Elizabeth Vargas, who reported the 20/20 story “Matthew Shepard: Secrets of a Murder.” In it, she interviews Aaron McKinney, and the parts of the interview that they choose to use in the segment imply that Aaron and his friend Russell Henderson wanted only to rob Matthew and that the crime became so violent because the boys were “strung out” on meth. Many people consider the 20/20 program the last word on the subject.
A hate crime is defined as a crime in which part or all of the motivation for that crime is the perpetrator’s perception of the sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, or gender identity of the victim. Aaron has acknowledged that that was part of his motivation. The drug theory was entirely disproved by evidence admitted in trial. The extreme overkill documented at the crime scene demonstrates that the murder went way beyond a botched robbery. And still people point to this 20/20 episode as “proof.”
The motives to deny in this way are complex and certainly go beyond simple homophobia. I have been to Laramie many times. The community is not unusually homophobic. I have been in other places where I felt much less safe as a gay man. Provo, Utah, springs to mind.
It is unfair to the people of Laramie, already traumatized by this crime and the media’s erroneous portrayal of them, to represent their town as the hate-crime capital of the world. It’s not, and obviously some of the distancing that we encountered upon our return can be attributed to a natural desire to redefine their home as something more wholesome than the scene of a hate crime. Still, to deny entirely that it was a hate crime, to deny entirely the very facts of the case, is irresponsible and dismissive of the experience of queer people who still choose to live their lives in Wyoming. No, Laramie isn’t more homophobic than other places. They have the same brand of overt and covert homophobia that surround us everywhere in our culture today, New York City included.
OK, I just got on the soapbox. I am supposed to be writing about our plays. It does relate, though. The issue of queer rights is still one of the most polarizing topics in our culture today. Passions run deep on both sides of the debate, and they certainly run deep in Laramie. It’s a central debate in The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. It’s much of what makes the play the dynamic evening of theater that it is — or perhaps I should say that it will be if we can all figure out where to stand and what to say.
Here we are, above, at that first idyllic day of rehearsal. Christopher Oakley took this picture before our initial table read of part 2. Director Moisés Kaufman is in the blue shirt and glasses. Clockwise from Moisés are Greg Pierotti, Mark Berger, Amy Resnick, Mercedes Herrero, Kelli Simpkins, Christina Rouner, Scott Barrow, and Jeremy Bobb. Also pictured, continuing clockwise, are stage manager Samone Weissman and assistant director Jimmy Maize. How fresh-faced, confident, and engaged we all look. Such innocence. Such hope. None of us able to foresee the chaos just a few weeks ahead. Well, if anyone can pull it together, it is this talented company. I will keep you posted.