“What was your response when you heard that had happened to Matthew Shepard”
Is a homophobic murder more significant than a ‘straight’ one? Whatever the answer, if indeed there is one, the brutal attack and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard in the small Wyoming town of Laramie in 1998 became a hugely significant touchpoint on the issue. The murder and its ensuing aftermath focused attention, both national and international, on the insufficient nature of hate crime legislation – of which there was none in Wyoming – specifically around homophobically motivated attacks and eventually set in motion, changes in US law. To try and make some sense out of the tragedy and to document its impact on the community in which it had happened, Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project travelled there to conduct a series of interviews with residents affected both directly and indirectly by the events and constructed this piece of verbatim theatre from those conversations – The Laramie Project.
The result is a patchwork quilt of emotion and prejudice, of horror and hope, of devastating emotional impact. As sixty characters are represented here by thirteen actors, the focus ends up being the community of Laramie rather than Shepard himself as everyone is given the chance to air their view. The immediate point of comparison for me was with London Road, another verbatim project that similiarly examined a community’s response to a horrific event and didn’t shy away from the variety of responses, not all of them quite as palatable as one would hope for. So alongside the heart-wrenching stories of Shepard’s friends and relatives, we get the vitriolic Fred Phelps; the compassionate clergyman whose world-view is altered is contrasted with ranchhands who don’t much agree with what those gay fellas get up to; and the responses of the theatre-makers themselves are also documented in excerpts from their journals as they process what they are hearing and learning.
Upcoming young director Josh Seymour handles the weightiness of the subject with an assured hand which ensures the utmost clarity as the kaleidoscope of responses keeps on changing. Spotlights on chairs are effectively employed to distinguish scenes with just enough hints of costume change to take us through the roll-call, fuzzy clips of radio and television reports take us through transitions and add another layer to the storytelling. And in a cast that has been recruited from all years of the De Montfort University drama programmes, there are performances of piercing integrity, heartfelt honesty and understated precision which captures the different rhythms of such a diverse community. There are no caricatures here, which ratchets up the constricting sorrow at the conviction with which so much prejudice is held, even if it is not overt: the relief of the mother whose daughter hasn’t got AIDS, the parents of the drama student who are ok with him play a murdering Scottish king but not a gay man, the list goes on. (I couldn’t name names here but if we were judging on hair colour, the gingers would win my acting plaudits.)
The Laramie Project is undoubtedly a remarkable play and this production of it should certainly be commended for its quiet beauty and resonance. But it is also a play that provokes complex emotional responses, especially now that we’re more than 10 years down the line, that are rather disturbing. There’s a crushing relentlessness to the play which follows the authentic timeline rather than a conventionally neat dramatic arc, so the sense of catharsis that one yearns for never really materialises, even with the convictions of the accused. Rather, the emergent message lies in the hope for the future, in the change that this horrific event will inspire, the equality that will arrive. It is true that some significant progress has been made, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act was signed into law in 2009 (though my limited understanding of US state vs federal law means I’m not sure if it is actually in place in Wyoming), but in so many depressing ways it feels that little has actually changed.
Homophobia remains deeply ingrained in society, passing by unchallenged far too often as the fear of reprisal is a horrible fact of life for many LGBT people. Laws may change but something deeper, more societal needs to shift and gloomy as it may sound, I’m just not sure if that will ever happen. At one point, someone says “that kinda thing doesn’t happen here in Laramie”, but it did. And it is still happening, everywhere. That is a sobering message to take away from the theatre and one that must not be forgotten.