Photographs of Matthew Shepard, his home town, his murders at trial and… (Astrid Riecken/For The…)
No one plays Matthew Shepard in “The Laramie Project.”
The piece of documentary theater was inspired by Shepard’s murder: The gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was brutally beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo., 15 years ago. The play that Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project wrote the year after the murder is made up of courtroom testimony, news reports and interviews with Laramie residents.
But Shepard is not among the dozens of characters. His killers are there, and some of his friends. Law enforcement officials. A judge, a doctor. His father. If Shepard’s murder was an earthquake, “The Laramie Project” studies the aftershocks. What happened to this community? What happened to this country?
Ford’s Theatre is staging the play as the third installment in its Lincoln Legacy Project, which aims to explore diversity and tolerance. The production not only coincides with the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death but is also the first professional staging of “The Laramie Project” in Washington.
“I’m doing it at Ford’s Theatre. That’s the part that makes this feel so important,” said Matthew Gardiner, the associate artistic director of Signature Theatre who is making his Ford’s directorial debut with “Laramie.” “For it to be done [at] a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln, somebody who fought so hard for the civil rights of others. . . . It just feels so important.”
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law against bias crimes directed at gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, was signed into law by President Obama in 2009. Since then, the Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed. Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage. In his second inaugural address, he cited the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York alongside Seneca Falls and Selma: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
“I think, legislatively, we are making progress,” said Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother. “We are socially, still a little behind that, but I think that’s to be expected.”
“We can’t think that just because of the steps we have made forward that it’s over now, because it isn’t,” Shepard said. “We don’t want people to forget. We aren’t there yet.”
‘I am going to grant you life’
On Oct. 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney, 22, and Russell Henderson, 21, drove Shepard to a deserted area on the edge of Laramie, where they beat him and left him. Eighteen hours passed before Shepard was found.
Five days later, Shepard died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo.
McKinney and Henderson are serving two life sentences apiece. They were eligible to receive the death penalty, but Shepard’s parents intervened.
Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, read a statement at McKinney’s trial: “Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.
“May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
During a recent rehearsal, Gardiner warned actor Paul Scanlan against being “too cocky for too long” as he reenacted McKinney’s confession. “I think it’s all a front,” Gardiner said. “I think it all comes from a place of just being so damn scared.”
“We have a responsibility to express their viewpoints in an honest way,” Gardiner said in a post-rehearsal interview. “Even the ones we don’t like.”
Scanlan, who plays both McKinney and Henderson, has to keep in mind that his character is “terrified,” Gardiner said. “I want to paint the ugliest picture of him that I can. But that . . . is not honest, and it’s also less interesting. It’s just going to create a cartoon. So we have to find what makes him human.”
Gardiner intentionally cast all local actors, faces that will be familiar to Washington audiences, including Mitchell Hebert, Kimberly Gilbert and Holly Twyford. He said he wants the play to “feel as relevant as possible, and I think a lot of that is in the casting and making it feel like it speaks to our community and is representative of our community.”
Judy Shepard said that she has seen “pieces” of “The Laramie Project” all over the country but that she didn’t feel ready to sit through an entire production until last summer, when the Tectonic Theater Project staged the play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
“What makes it so brilliant [is that] what you see onstage is a microcosm of every community in the world,” Shepard said. “Every person knows somebody who is represented onstage. Even yourself.”
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