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The Laramie Project
The Laramie Project. By Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project. The Tectonic Theater Project, University of Wyoming Fine Arts Center Main Stage, Laramie, Wyoming. 29 November 2000.
Living just south of the Wyoming border, in the city where Matthew Shepard died, I was tremendously moved by the beating and death of the University of Wyoming student. My reactions to its aftermath were more mixed. The national coverage, in spite of the enormous hype, helped reinvigorate gay activism with a sense of meaning and urgency, along with renewed solidarity and pride. But much of the coverage took on a condescending tone, appraising the Western prairies as a cultural wasteland where homophobia and the Christian right's hegemony ruled unchecked. So I had mixed emotions when I heard that playwright Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project from New York were coming to Laramie to create an interview-based piece around the Matthew Shepard incident. I was glad that Kaufman was undertaking the work. His impressive structuring of Gross Indecency layers text upon text and places different strands of narrative in tension with each other. I felt that he and his group, if anyone, had the dramaturgical skill to investigate the community in which the incident occurred. I was, nevertheless, a bit anxious about a group swooping into Laramie for a few weeks with New York attitudes about prairie cities as both violently homophobic and full of quaint, folksy people.
The production I saw at the University of Wyoming (during a week-long sold-out run in which the company brought the piece back to the community) allayed my fears by addressing them. More Brechtian than realist theatre, The Laramie Project self-consciously reflects its creative processes and representational choices. The eight actors, playing themselves, other members of the project, and people in the Laramie and Fort Collins communities, relate going to Laramie a month after Shepard's death to conduct initial interviews, and then returning several times for additional interviews and to observe the trials of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The actors self-deprecatingly present their preconceptions about the West before the project, including fears of being gay-bashed in Laramie. They also portray the many interviewees who jarred their preconceptions: Zubaida Ula, a Bangladeshi Muslim feminist; Romaine Patterson, the friend of Matthew Shepard who was transformed by the incident into an activist; Father Roger Schmidt, who urged tolerance; and Reggie Fluty, the deputy sheriff who, exposed to HIV when she cut Shepard down from the fence, went on a difficult AZT regime but never once regretted helping him.
The piece captures, as well, the hyper-reality of the media frenzy during the trials by doubling stage and screen images of television reporters. While actors quickly move in and out of characters, the play carefully listens to the variations in these sometimes wise, sometimes funny, sometimes startling, and always interesting residents of Laramie. The deliberate accumulation of fragments, by turns colorful, understated, and conflicting, gradually documents the complexity of the Laramie community. Even the most common refrain uttered by characters to encapsulate the Western mentality--"live and let live"--is contradicted by an interviewee who says that philosophy really only means "I won't tell you I'm a faggot and you won't beat the crap out of me. What kind of a philosophy is that?" In the end, there is not a Western mentality, but many irreconcilable Western mentalities.
In the production I saw, this intermixture of unresolvable voices continued into the talkback session. Among the many participants present were individuals portrayed in the piece itself or directly involved in the incident and its aftermath: Father Roger Schmidt, who received enthusiastic applause, and jury members of the McKinney and Henderson trials (including one jury member who commented that the performance and talkback provided the first chance the community had to de-brief and heal). The talkback redoubled my appreciation for the company's creative process, its sense of accountability to the community it investigated, and its thoughtful, self-monitoring...