Eleven years ago this week, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo., was brutally tortured and left for dead on a fencepost. Ten years ago, New York's Tectonic Theater Project examined how the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard rocked a community and a nation.
To commemorate the legacy of that event, that same theater company -- in the aptly titled "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" -- returned to the very-familiar streets of the Gem City of the Plains for another round of interviews with locals. Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic crew wanted to find out: Has Matthew's murder had a lasting impact on Laramie, and what does life in that community tell us about life in America 10 years later?
"It's pretty shocking, actually," Priscilla Manisto said of the group's findings. The local theater veteran is directing the Playhouse's staged reading of the epilogue, which will be performed simultaneously at more than 150 venues around the world Monday. "In the original 'Laramie Project,' they didn't interview -- rather, they chose on purpose not to interview -- Judy Shepard (Matthew's mother) and Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney (Matthew's murderers). Because their intention with that first script wasn't to even look at the event of the murder -- although that was part of it -- they really just wanted to see what happened in this community the year after the murder."
Although Manisto wasn't at liberty to discuss the script (actually a bit of a misnomer, as its text consists of direct quotes from those involved), she was unable to hide her feelings toward it.
"I was really shocked by Aaron McKinney's interview in particular. I was really shocked," she said. "... I expected so much more from this person, and that's probably the thing that's remarkable is that there's been a lot of change since the original 'Laramie Project.'"
Manisto isn't referring to change in the positive sense; rather, there's been some rumblings from people who have read the epilogue's script that some residents of Laramie are trying to rewrite history by labeling what happened to Matthew a botched robbery. There have even been some "revisionists" on the national political stage -- like North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, who called his murder a "hoax" perpetuated by gay-rights activists trying to get legislation passed.
"The testimony and the court trials established that this was a hate crime," Manisto said. "But, for this little town of Laramie, which is in a libertarian, 'live and let live,' 'everyone can be who they want to be' state, it's not so easy owning the identity of being a place where a hate crime of such brutality took place.
"And that's really reflected in the interviews now. It's a little bit surprising that people's attitudes and ideas of what happened and why it happened and how it happened have changed."
In fact, Manisto said that's what is so remarkable about this piece of theater: "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" looks at what it means to be human.
"It's easier to say, 'OK, it was a robbery' versus, 'OK, it was a hate crime,'" she continued. "It's easier to live in a town where someone gets murdered over drugs than it is where someone gets murdered because they're gay. That comes out quite a bit in this play."
Another frustrating aspect of this piece for Manisto is that it reminds the director that Congress has yet to support hate-crime legislation for the GLBT community.
"The fact that they haven't been able to pass this Matthew Shepard act in 10 years -- are you kidding me? I don't get it. I don't get why that's never happened," she said. "I mean, intellectually I get it. But, in my soul, I don't get it. I don't get it! There is a group of people that's not going to be protected in the same way as everybody else in this country.
"It's about love, and these people don't get protected just because of who they love. It doesn't make any sense to me."
Manisto said a quote from Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, best sums up our nation's stance on the issue in the last decade: "We've seen a lot of change, but not a lot of progress."
"We say we're so much better and we say we're not a racist, sexist -- I mean, sexism is alive and well, racism is alive and well and homophobia is alive and well," she said. "These things are alive and well, and I think the change is that we don't talk about them. The dialogue doesn't happen. We're afraid to say anything because we're afraid somebody is going to call us names."
"Without the dialogue and without the discussion and without making mistakes and without saying the wrong thing and having someone caring enough about us to say 'That's not alright,' we're never going to make any progress. It's never going to happen."
One step toward the progress Manisto speaks of is the connected nature of the "Laramie Project" epilogue. Not only will "Ten Years Later" be performed at more than 150 theaters Monday, but it will also be done at the same time at each one. Duluth and the other "satellite" companies will be linked up to the Glenn Close-hosted main event at Lincoln Center -- and, following the performance locally, the Playhouse will again be connected to the Tectonic crew in New York for a live question-and-answer session.
"That's the whole point: Let's talk about it," Manisto said. "How do we feel about what we're seeing and hearing?
"Laramie is just like any town. ... The original 'Laramie Project' has been done a bazillion times in a bazillion countries -- and every time the feedback is the same: 'Our town is Laramie.' It's not just this hick cowboy town in the middle of the prairie; it's Duluth, it's New York. This stuff is happening everywhere."
NEWS TO USE
A staged reading of "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the Playhouse. There is a $10 suggested donation, but no one will be turned away if they cannot pay. Proceeds benefit Together for Youth, which provides support to LGBTQ teens in the Northland. Reserve tickets by calling 733-7555.