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Blog posted Saturday, October 17, 2009

On October 12, 1998, openly gay university student Matthew Shepard died following a brutal attack near Laramie, Wyoming in which his assailants tied him to a fence, mercilessly bludgeoned him and left him for dead. A few weeks later, Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie where they interviewed local residents about the even. These discussions became The Laramie Project, a documentary-style drama which ran for nearly six months Off-Broadway, and has since become one of the most frequently-performed plays in America, with over 2,000 productions to date. On October 12, 2009, eleven years after Shepard’s horrific murder, in an astounding display of solidarity, over 150 theatre companies worldwide simultaneously premiered Kaufman and company’s new play The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

Staged readings of the new work popped up all over the country, from Los Angeles (where the script was punctuated with music from the LA Gay Men’s Chorus); to Seattle (where yours truly saw the show while on vacation); to Fort Lauderdale; Tempe, Arizona; and many small towns including Laramie, Wyoming. Locally, the play was seen at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Through the wonders of technology, pre- and post show discussions were broadcast live to many venues presenting the work. According to The New York Times, over 50,000 people worldwide saw the show in its various incarnations.

Less a sequel than a continuation, the new play focuses on the tenth anniversary of Shepard’s murder last year, when members of the Tectonic Theatre Project returned to the area to take the temperature of the community, and conducted follow-up interviews with local residents (many of whom are also featured in The Laramie Project). The writers discovered an amazing array of personalities: a local man who was inspired to “come out” following Shepard’s death, the newspaper editor who desires to “move on” from the town’s terrible history, and, most shockingly, many people who now believe that the murder was motivated by drugs or money rather than by hate (exacerbated by an erroneous 2004 “20/20” news special), much to the consternation of local law enforcement and evidence to the contrary presented at the murder trial, which found Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson guilty of committing a homophobic hate crime.

One of the more spectacular scenes features a local folklorist who attempts to explains some Laramie residents’ impulse to expunge the terrible incident from the town’s history, in an attempt to defend themselves against national media’s portrayal of Laramie is a backward, hick town… a less than idyllic community. In much the same way, the fence where Shepard was tied and left to die has long since been removed, the bar where Henderson and McKinney lured Shepard to his death has been renamed and is under new ownership, and it is not uncommon for current University of Wyoming students to have no awareness of Matthew Shepard. There is also a long, harrowing interview with McKinney and the question of his remorse regarding Shepard's murder.

Has anything really changed in terms in terms of eliminating bigotry, fear and hate over the past ten years? In some ways, most certainly: a gay University of Wyoming professor became the first homosexual to serve in the state legislature, and, led by Republicans, the state has approved domestic partner benefits (with the unfortunate caveat that the resolutions will take effect when state finances are in better shape). Some local attitudes also seem to have shifted: gay residents now feel they can turn to the police for protection. Shepard’s friends wonder how Matt, their pal, would feel about being lionized as a martyr for gay rights. But with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” still very much on the books, the Defense of Marriage Act being fought in so many states, and men and woman being persecuted every day for their sexuality (including a gay bias attack just last weekend in Queens), there is still a long hard fight ahead of us all.

There is a long, proud history of the arts as a catalyst for change, and Ten Years Later deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. So how about it, Off-Broadway producers and theatres: when can we see a full production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later?

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