In November 1998, when members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York City to Laramie, Wyo., to interview residents about the impact of gay college student Matthew Shepard's murder, they had no idea what the impact of their work would be.
"When we first went to Laramie, we didn't go with the idea that we were going to write a play," says Tectonic member Leigh Fondakowski. Instead, she says, they simply wanted to see if theater artists had a role to play in the situation surrounding Shepard's death. But over the course of that and six subsequent trips to Laramie during the following year, they found out that their role was to create a play -- and that play, The Laramie Project, has become one of the most frequently performed works in the U.S., with nearly 200 productions in the past year alone. "The fact that it had a life beyond us was really shocking," she says.
Now Tectonic is bringing The Laramie Project, which premiered in 2000, and its 2009 follow-up, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, back to New York for a run that opens tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The production, under the umbrella title The Laramie Project Cycle, marks the first time both plays have been done together in New York with a majority of the original company, says Moises Kaufman, Tectonic's founder-artistic director and the codirector (with Fondakowski) and cowriter (with her and other Tectonic members) of both plays. The plays will be performed in repertory through February 24, with "marathons" encompassing both works the next two weekends. There's also a talk Saturday by Kaufman and Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, to be moderated by NPR reporter Neda Ulaby, and a series of educational workshops connected with the show.
The theater company based the plays on hundreds of interviews with Laramie residents -- including police officers, University of Wyoming faculty members, shopkeepers, bartenders, and one of Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney -- and others connected with Shepard, such as his mother and an administrator at the Colorado hospital where Matthew died October 12, 1998, six days after he was beaten by McKinney and Russell Henderson and left for dead on a fence on the outskirts of Laramie.
"In writing the plays, we really tried to capture a snapshot of where the nation was at the end of the millennium," Kaufman says. In dealing with a crime that put antigay hate crimes in the national consciousness, they address issues of sexuality, gender, class, "all of the kind of fault lines that are hurting our culture," he says.
They also look at how stories are told, and, in the case of Ten Years Later, based on interviews Tectonic members conducted in 2008, at how they are retold. "A lot of people in Laramie are trying to change the narrative," says Kaufman. Instead of seeing Shepard's murder as one based on antigay bigotry, some people are saying it grew out of a robbery or drug deal; part of the reason, he says, is that some Laramie residents resent the fact that their city is known as the site of a hate crime. "There's an effort to rewrite history," he says, but the plays "forcefully rebut those rumors."
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 Moises 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.