Some performances are so poignant and moving it’s nearly impossible to approach them with a critical and analytical eye. USF’s Performing Arts and Social Justice-sponsored production of “The Laramie Project” April 17 and 18 in Lone Mountain’s Studio Theater was one of those productions.
In the late 1990s the members of the Tectonic Theater Project and playwright/director Moises Kaufman embarked on a trip to Laramie, Wyo. where a young gay man named Matthew Shepard had been robbed and murdered in Oct. 1998. He spent the evening at a bar in town and left with two men who took him out of town, stole his shoes and money, beat him up, tied him to a fence and left him to die. He was found 18 hours later by a jogger who called the police. He was taken to a local hospital, but they couldn’t adequately treat him so he was taken to Fort Collins, Colo. where he died several days later. The accused, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, used the “gay panic defense” in court, claiming advances from Shepard drove them temporarily insane. Both are in prison for life.
In Laramie, the members of the theater group interviewed people all over town including clergy, townspeople, the bartender from the night Shepard was killed, the boy who found Shepard, friends of McKinney and Henderson, and the detective. These extended interviews were pieced together with diary entries from those involved with the play, court documents and media and eventually became the script for “The Laramie Project.”
The space was minimalist. Near the back of the room there was a rolling rack with clothes hanging on it, several stools, a chest, a blackboard with a photo of the sky posted on it and a coat rack covered with clothes. Travis Busse sat on a chair and played the guitar. As the ensemble cast came out, some took the stage, while others sat in reserved seats in the audience on either side.
For this show each performer played several roles, lapsing in and out of different accents and personas. They took clothes from the rolling rack and coat rack to change their costumes for their different characters. The acting was convincing and sometimes heart wrenching. Sam Finger’s portrayal of the town limo driver channeled the essence of New York City, developing a lovable and believable character. Justin Jairam’s interpretation of the bartender sculpted a vision of a young joker coping with loss and blame surrounding Shepard’s death.The play’s director Maro Guevara organized a stunning production. He worked diligently to cut segments of the play so it would run its allotted length without sacrificing the meaning. He orchestrated a thoughtful piece and utilized the skills of his actors.
While the story of Matthew Shepard is almost 11 years old, the play is upsettingly relevant today. Living in San Francisco, many retain a naïve vision of a progressive United States. Throughout the country there are communities where homosexuality is considered completely unacceptable. There are gay people who spend their lives closeted because they live each day fearing violence. We still live in a time when the religious right can fuel their money into a campaign to prevent gay marriage that markets gay people as perverts and detrimental to the American family. While improvements have been made to protect people from hate crimes, they still occur on a regular basis. It’s imperative that we never forget the story of Matthew Shepard.