Every city is defined by a number of contributing factors from the landscape to its residents and the history of the town itself. In Laramie, Wyoming, the place once recognized as a prominent railroading community where small-town, conservative views meshed in a comfortable contradiction with its panoramic scenery and heaven-meets-earth skies became the epicenter of hate following the death of a young, gay man named Matthew Shepard.
Created by a collection of students at the Tectonic Theater Troupe, The Laramie Project is the result of over 200 interviews conducted by members over a series of visits to Laramie to understand and explain how Shepard’s brutal murder affected them, changed them and changed the city for better or worse.
On the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, the production born from those interviews continues to spark much needed dialogue.The 5 & Dime: A Theatre Company stages the stirring production through July 1. The show, which opened during Pride month, also features a strong companion exhibit of pieces thoughtfully curated by Hope McMath and The Yellow House to reflect themes within the show.
This is a brilliant example of a true ensemble piece. The poignant telling of the brutal facts is an emotional experience that finds its voice in the words of the citizens of Laramie as told by a revolving cast of characters. It’s a complicated portrayal as each of the 11 actors slip seamlessly between characters from the sheriff, Shepard’s friends, the town’s religious leaders, the bartender who was working at the Fireside Bar the last night Matthew was seen alive, the bicyclist who found him bound to a fence and the doctor who treated him after he was savagely beaten and left for dead.
Under the direction of Lee Beger, a simple change of shirt, slight shift in accent, the addition of a police badge or priest’s collar is all that’s required to denote the transition as the stories continue to unfold. On a bare stage, the cast revolves before a panel of watercolor sky and fence posts not unlike the ones that held Matthew captive on a freezing October night in 1998. The starkness of the stage is an effective tool that allows the cast to guide the pacing of the narrative, a task they manage with skill and aplomb.
As the media catches wind of “the incident with the boy,” the people of Laramie struggle to show a town with good people, lots of space, sunshine and big skies, where views on homosexuality is “live and let live” where, in truth, it means it’s fine so long as they don’t try anything on them. They all condemn the violence while many still refuse to condone the lifestyle. The societal commentary emphasizes the fact that these are all real people, and the idea that people like them still exist in high numbers.
Killers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were convicted of Shepard’s murder and the interviews paint the picture of a town struggling against the depiction of their close-knit community as the kind of place where these things happen. It’s also a stark portrayal of the pressures of being gay in “cowboy country,” a place that failed to adopt any sort of legislation against hate crimes despite exposing its ugly underbelly in a world spotlight.
There are shining moments of humanity woven throughout the testimony. Matthew Shepard is remembered as a bright, hopeful, compassionate young man finally finding his own voice as an advocate for human rights. He was poised to make a difference in the world.
Highlights include Stephanie Santiago as Shepard’s friend Romaine Patterson who assembles her “Action Angels” to surround hate monger Fred Phelps, played by Jan Peter Buksar, blocking out his rhetoric with a circle of feathered wings. Rhodie Jackson stands out in the role of Officer Reggie Fluty, the officer called to the scene of a brutal crime who ignored her own safety to treat Shepard with respect and dignity as he lay dying. Kristin Livingston among her many roles provides a unique perspective as Zubaida Ula, a Muslim woman who denounces the crime as she wrestles with her personal conflict surrounding a fitting punishment.
Actress Valerie Anthony is exceptional as the only openly gay faculty member at the University of Wyoming, a newspaper reporter who is shocked by the comments of a Baptist minister and a waitress who is also the mother of Officer Fluty. She infuses an authenticity in each of the roles she inhabits. Together, Anthony and Jackson provide welcome moments of levity.
Actor Cory Simmons as Shepard’s bereaved father Dennis delivers the show’s most moving moment when he speaks to one of his son’s killers statement during the sentencing phase of his trial. His statement shows a father grieving the loss of his son, his hero, with amazing grace.
The production demonstrates the magnitude with which some people hate and the willingness of others to fight against it with care and compassion. Matthew Shepard didn’t deserve to die and The Laramie Project ensures his death was not in vain. Yet 20 years later, echoes of the same conservative view points still ripple through the current presidential administration, the Pulse nightclub shooting and landmark precedent citing religious freedom as a loophole for prejudice and hate. The Laramie Project shows how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.