On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, one of the few openly gay people in Laramie, Wyoming, was beaten, tortured and left to die by two local men. Over the next year and a half, a small theatre company visited Laramie to interview residents, piecing together the events surrounding Shepard’s murder.
In the production, Knox actors, playing members of Tectonic Theatre Project, take on a plethora of shifting identities. Simple props and mannerisms are used to bring Laramie residents, Shepard’s friends and family, pastors, news anchors, activists and theatre company members to life. The ensemble cast weaves together a collage that encapsulates the tumultuous feelings of those involved, stuck through with moments of intense, emotional poignancy. The calmness with which characters question whether tolerance is truly enough, or the nonchalant way one perpetrator states that he doesn’t “hate” gay people, contrast the violence of the crime.
The uncluttered set does not transport the audience to Laramie so much as bring Laramie to the audience, capturing the shock, guilt and devastation felt by its characters. Since all the dialogue is taken directly from various interviews, the goal is to make its subjects as true-to-life as possible. This is punctuated by the production’s use of projections and music to capture the feeling of a candlelight vigil or bitter protest.
In a particularly moving scene, Reverend Fred Phelps, played by junior Gil Martinez, delivers a hate-filled rant at Shepard’s funeral. Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard’s and lesbian activist, played by junior Jo Hill, arranges for volunteers wearing angel wings to block Phelps and his protesters from view. The image of senior Peter Rule, who also plays Shepard’s father, standing steadfast, lifting white, homemade wings, as the protesters gradually fade from view and hearing, is heart wrenching.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, Shepard’s death was one of 1,260 incidents classified as hate crimes based on sexual orientation in 1998. In 2017, that number was 1,303. This does not include 131 hate crimes against transgender people, who were added to the UCR index more recently, or incidents with multiple motives.
These statistics cannot capture the true extent of hatred against sexual and gender minorities in the United States.
In 2019, bigotry hidden behind dog whistles for decades feels comfortable walking in public. It speaks from the White House lawn. It has become fashionable to hate. White, cisgender gays may still feel insulated from its effects but for transgender women of color and others who stand at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, the danger is immediate.
National media peddles the narrative that homophobia ended with the legalization of same-sex marriage. Conservative politicians, who might have advocated conversion therapy a few years ago, grudgingly state that they would consider attending a gay wedding. Amidst symbols of progress, especially at a place like Knox, it is possible to lose sight of the hatred that killed Shepard. The Laramie Project reminds us that homophobia, hate crimes and gay panic are not things of the past.