The little town of Laramie, Wyoming, wasn't the only one affected when one of its residents, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man and student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and left for dead in an open plain in 1998.
The rest of the country watched in horror and awe as the events unfolded. As Laramie residents attempted to come to terms with their grief and made determinations about what occurred the night of Shepard's murder, people across the country formed their own opinions about homosexuality, hate, discrimination and crime.
If Matthew Shepard's murder was a catalyst for a nationwide discussion about hate crimes, then Laramie was a paradigm for every city in the U.S.
One of the driving forces behind this discussion was the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project. Led by Moisés Kaufman, Tectonic members penetrated Laramie weeks after the murder to interview residents about the event and its affect on them. Following three rounds of interviews and months of writing, the Tectonic Theater Project debuted The Laramie Project Off Broadway in 2000. The play has received several thousand productions since.
This year, Kaufman and his team--Stephen Belber, Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris and Greg Pierotti--returned to Laramie to reinterview the town's residents, including Shepard's mother and Aaron McKinney, who were not interviewed for the first play, to discover what changes have taken place in the little town and in the minds of its residents in the 10 years since Shepard's murder.
What resulted from those interviews is a new play, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, which will receive a nationwide staged reading by more than 150 theatre companies before it hits Broadway next year.
Live streaming video via the Web will connect the performances to one staged by Tectonic in New York and to a question-and-answer session with Tectonic following the readings.
In Tulsa, the recently formed Odeum Theatre Company, which operates under the umbrella of Ken Tracy's Choregus Productions, will stage the reading.
Tracy said he had plans to stage The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later before he took on Odeum earlier this year.
He found out about the project through a management firm he regularly works with and jumped on the opportunity to be a part of it. He enlisted the support of Oklahomans for Equality, a local LGBT outreach organization that headquarters at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, 621 E. 4th St., as a way to reach out to the LGBT community and get it involved in the project.
Across the country, Shepard's murder is largely viewed as a hate crime. In their testimony, his killers, McKinney and Russell Henderson, both 21-year-old blue-collar workers, said they beat Shepard because he came onto them. But in the 10 years since his murder, no hate crime legislation has passed in Wyoming or anywhere else in the country.
And now, some of Laramie's residents chock the incident up to a robbery or drug bust gone wrong.
And that's what The Laramie Project is about, said Kaufman in a phone interview.
"It poses the question, 'How do we construct our own history? How do we deal with our own story?'" Kaufman said. "It definitely addresses the nature of rumors and why communities need them."
"One of the interesting things about the epilogue is how it explores issues of community amnesia or a community trying to change its past," Tracy said. "It's about why they do that and what the ramifications of that are."
Kaufman said the play questions the nature of progress. Although no hate crime legislation has passed, members of the Laramie police force who might have been considered homophobic prior to Shepard's murder now advocate and lobby for hate crime legislation on a national level, he said.
"It's a fallacy to try to define Laramie the way one would describe an individual," Kaufman said. "There are 27,000 people in Laramie. But there are ideas, there are discourses that begin to emerge in the community that are then accepted or rejected. And these are very interesting to see. They tell us about how we construct identity--both as individuals and as a community. In this sense, the play examines how well we tell communal stories and how we construct local, and national, identities.
"But one of the things that was very clear from the start is the question of 'How does one measure change?' Is it in the number of public monuments that have been erected? Is it in the number of laws that have been passed? Is it in the number of people whose views have been changed? And this is an important question."
Members of the Tectonic Theater Project have worked with Odeum actors--the core group consists of Whitson Hanna, Will Carpenter, Leslie Long, Erin Scarberry and Cassie Hollis--on developing their reading of the play. They'll be joined onstage by other community theatre actors.
Staging simultaneous readings of the play is Tectonic's nod to Hallie Flanagan and the Federal Theater Project, which used to regularly open plays in multiple cities on the same night.
The staging occurs on Monday, Oct. 12, the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, five days after he was brutally beaten. In Tulsa, it happens at 8pm at The Tulsa Performing Arts Center in the John H. Williams Theatre, 110 E. Second St.
On Sunday, Oct. 11, Odeum will present two showings of Home Box Office's film adaptation of the original The Laramie Project in the same theater at 3pm and 5pm.
The film screenings are free (the suggested donation is $8), and tickets to the reading are $25 and available at www.tulsapac.com.
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