It’s been 18 years since University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped and beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay. Five weeks after his murder, playwright Moises Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted more than 200 interviews over the following year with townspeople. From these interviews, they wrote the play The Laramie Project, a chronicle of the life of the town of Laramie in the year after the murder.
Under the direction of Jacksonville University Associate Professor Deborah Jordan, The Laramie Project will be staged October 20-22 in JU’s Swisher Theater. The project exposes the lowest depths of human hatred while revealing the greatest heights of compassion that lie within all of us. The Laramie Project is the struggle for redemption of a Midwestern community coming to grips with a tragedy and a testament to the hope for groups who continue to fight against a rising tide of intolerance and hate.
When tasked with selecting this year’s student production, Jordan says she wanted to do a show that was socially relevant. She originally chose a script about a school shooting, but it had a limited casting potential. The Laramie Project was a perfect fit because of the number of available roles. While it can be staged with as little as eight actors, it has the capacity to fill over 80 roles.
“I would like to say that it was for something noble. It started out that way. They asked me to pick something that could have flexible casting. However many people that showed up, that’s how many we would cast,” says Jordan. “I wanted to do something that was socially relevant. I don’t think you can get much more socially relevant than Laramie and the people that have come to me and wanted to do stories is a testament to how this resonates with our community right now.”
Jordan is filling out her cast with 15 actors who must transition in and out of the skins of the townspeople, going from a 40-year-old gay man to a tough-as-nails police sergeant who finds the perpetrator. She is mindful of her responsibilities as director when she knows the sensitive material is going to strike a chord with so many different groups.
“As a director, what I need to do is just make sure that everybody is giving the proper attention to every single character in the show. There are a lot of racist comments that are made throughout and as an actor, you can’t say ‘oh, I’m playing the horrible, racist character’. You have to completely believe in what you’re doing. It becomes like acting Olympics for them.”
Cast members were required to do a lot of research to understand and create the context for many of the references made throughout the piece. Most of the actors are too young to remember the Jasper incident or don’t know how to define the Twinkie Defense. They didn’t know that even though Shepard’s murder was denounced as a hate crime, it took over a decade after the murder to get any hate crime legislation on the books. “It also becomes a history lesson for them,” Jordan says.
The student actors have a visceral understanding of the impact of such recent tragedies as the Pulse shooting in Orlando and the continued struggle for equality not only in the LGBT community but in all marginalized populations.
“The Pulse shooting this summer, I had a couple of students from Orlando who were speaking to that. It’s all over the place. It brought it home to a lot of students with so many things that are happening. It’s not just about gays and lesbians but all the marginalized population, people with disabilities. I raised a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, and he encountered all kinds of issues with his upbringing. It’s about a gay faculty member who doesn’t feel safe coming out in the community. It’s about fear. And even though Matthew Shephard was murdered, and it was considered a hate crime, I think hate crimes go beyond just that. They go to how much hate and racism that has come up since Obama has been in office these last eight years and how all of that stuff has reared its ugly head. Right now, with the political climate being the way it is, it has really polarized so many things,” says Jordan.
“It becomes not just a theatrical exercise but one that carries a lot of weight. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and kids are becoming affected by the stuff that they’re doing. It’s very emotional to them in a lot of ways. I see this incredible desire to honor the material and the text and to do their very best on stage to portray these characters. “
Jordan says the last moments of the play echo the message of tolerance that she hopes audiences will carry with them after the curtain falls. “They talk about what’s changed. Has anything changed? Have we come forward? Have we stayed the same? Are we better people because of it? I think the message that Laramie has is yes.”
The Laramie Project premiered at The Ricketson Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February, 2000 and was then performed in the Union Square Theatre in New York City before a November, 2002 performance in Laramie, Wyoming. The play has also been performed by high schools, colleges, and community theaters across the country, as well as professional playhouses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.
Many of the performances in the United States have been picketed by followers of Fred Phelps from the Westboro Baptist Church, who are portrayed in the play picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral as they did in real life. Though the play has been produced worldwide, in 2009 it still generated controversy in Colorado and Las Vegas.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation provides help and resources for those wishing to produce The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The Foundation’s Laramie Project Specialist assists with media, historical context, creative consulting and other services at no charge to non-profit theatres and educational and religious institutions. The Foundation also helps to engage communities in a conversation about how to Erase Hate in the world.