Laramie Returns to New York City

The Laramie Project and its sequel, both dealing with the impact of Matthew Shepard's murder, get a new staging in Brooklyn, opening tonight.

BY Trudy Ring

February 12 2013 8:19 AM ET

The rewriting of history, and the fact that homophobia, sexism, and other ills continue to plague society, makes it important that these plays continue to be performed, Kaufman and Fondakowski say. Performances, whether by high schools, colleges, community theater companies, or professionals, afford a chance to talk about these issues, and also about how Matthew Shepard became the face of hate-crime victims. With all the attention surrounding his death, which gave rise to extensive activism and a federal hate-crimes law named partly for him, there has been some resentment that the murder of a white, affluent, attractive young college student attracted so much more notice than other antigay crimes. “As a culture, it’s important for us to reflect on that,” says Fondakowski.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music production is being made possible, in part, by a family with intimate knowledge of hate crimes and how their narratives are rewritten. “The Laramie Project is pretty close to my family’s heart,” says Steve Johnson, a Boston Internet entrepreneur. In 1988 his gay brother, Scott Johnson, who was attending graduate school in Australia, was found dead at the base of a cliff at a Sydney-area beach. For years authorities considered his death a suicide. But his family has long believed he was murdered by assailants who targeted gays, and there have been several murders in the region in which gay men were pushed or thrown off cliffs. The efforts of the Johnson family and an investigative journalist have led police to take a new look at the circumstances of Scott Johnson’s death.

“My brother’s case is what brought Moisés and I together,” says Steve Johnson, who was invited to dinner with Kaufman by a mutual friend last year. As a result of that coming together, the Johnson family has donated $100,000 toward the production of The Laramie Project Cycle.

“We feel like it’s the beginning of a long relationship with Tectonic,” Johnson says. “Tectonic is proving theater can be an extremely powerful medium. You have a captive audience who has to pay attention.” And in the cycle, Tectonic has an ideal vehicle to make people think about hate crimes, he says.

Johnson has been spending some time in Australia lately in connection with the filming of a television documentary about his brother’s case, but he plans to be in Brooklyn this weekend to see the marathon staging of both plays. This will the first time he’s seen either onstage, although he’s read the script and seen the 2002 HBO film of the first one. “I’m really excited about seeing the marathon,” he says.

After the Brooklyn production, Tectonic hopes to take the cycle on tour, but nothing is definite yet. What is certain, though, is that its work, especially The Laramie Project, has found a receptive audience around the nation — a testament, Fondakowski says, to the continuing resonance of Matthew Shepard’s death and the activism of his parents, Judy and Dennis, who set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight anti-LGBT bigotry.

Fondakowski and Kaufman both observe that there has been progress against that bigotry in the years since Shepard’s death, but much work remains to be done. “I never thought in my lifetime that gay people would be getting married,” Fondakowski says. “It’s encouraging to me, but there’s also a backlash. ... Violence against gays is not going down.”

For more information and tickets to The Laramie Project Cycle, visit BAM.org.

Tags: Theater

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