An Old Story Revisited

The Laramie Project is an unusual piece of theater, one that mines the real in a direct way. When Laramie, Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, his killers said they did it because they wanted to rob a gay man. Shepard's murder has, ever since, been the iconic example of hate crime.

Tectonic Theater went to Laramie and interviewed townspeople about the murder, then turned the interviews into a play. The result was a fascinating study of a commonplace American town thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight. The Laramie Project has been widely performed ever since.

Ten years after the murder, Tectonic Theater went back to talk to townspeople once more. They then created The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, An Epilogue. When the Advocate's theater critic, Chris Rohmann, got in touch to say he's co-producing/directing Northampton's production of the Epilogue (it's scheduled for same-day premiere performances at around 100 locations), the project sounded compelling, but in just the same fashion as the original. It could be, in rehashing the old, in danger of becoming only a distanced, coastal revelation that, in the unruly hinterlands, homophobia still grips the brain. The Laramie Project did far more than that, but that was some years ago.

Boy, was I wrong about the Epilogue. The script is gripping, well-paced and fascinating.

The Epilogue is not just a work about homophobia. It addresses what might seem like high-flown academic concerns—construction of communal history, the impulse to revise over time—in a riveting fashion. When "characters" embrace the notion—contradicted by testimony—that Shepard's murder had nothing to do with his sexuality, it's clear that the ride will prove interesting. Beliefs in Laramie seem to have become entrenched for all concerned, and the fog of 10 years obscures ever more, especially for those who seem to hope for a revision of the initial, jarring conclusions.

The creators of the Epilogue explore those ideas with a keen eye for the telling details, and deliver moments of buoyancy alongside shock and sadness. The most remarkable moments of the play arrive when Aaron McKinney, who, according to himself and his co-conspirator Russell Henderson, beat Shepard and left him for dead, tells his version of the story. It gives nothing away to say that McKinney defies easy categorization, and the complexity of 1998's events leaves much to be explored.

Like all the best art, the Epilogue examines the particular and resonates with the universal (if perhaps a poignantly American flavor of it—Shepard was killed out past WalMart, explains one speaker).

And something Rohmann reminded me of made the particular feel very local: "A recurring question in the Epilogue is, "Is Laramie a 'homophobic town,' or a) was the crime an anomaly, or b) no more or less homophobic than any other American town?—including safe, liberal Northampton, where someone was killed the same year as the Matthew Shepard murder in a homophobic fight on Pleasant Street."

The incident Rohmann refers to is the death of 16-year-old Jeffrey Lamothe, killed in a fight on Pleasant Street in the summer of 1998 by 15-year-old Matthew Santoni because he had, according to news reports, been a ringleader in taunting Santoni for his presumed homosexuality. And indeed, even in a place sometimes dismissed as Kumbaya-ville, the same struggles that play out everywhere else in the country still occur.

Thanks to the deft hand of its creators, the performance—it's hard to call its dramatized reality just a "play"—is unlikely to be just a giant group-hug reinforcement of leftward social attitudes, but something more along the lines of an ambitious examination of American zeitgeist as revealed in one town's story.

Rohmann puts a finer point on it: "Meg Gage, who is co-producing/directing with me—she's director of the Proteus Fund in Amherst, which is very engaged in funding gay marriage movements around the country—sees it as a kind of parallel to Our Town, in which, supposedly, nothing much happens, but of course so much is happening in every 'ordinary' life—we just don't notice. As opposed to Laramie, where something big and important and shocking happened and made the locals take notice—and then what do they do with that?"

Question and answer sessions via webcast follow performances, and through online tools, Tectonic has fostered an ambitious nationwide dialogue with those who produce the work. The local production includes, in addition to a long list of local actors, the candidates squaring off for Northampton mayor, Clare Higgins and Michael Bardsley. Sen. Stan Rosenberg also appears.

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, An Epilogue: Oct. 12, free, 7:30 p.m., The Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton,


Author: James Heflin

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