In a resurgent climate of hate, Seattle Central’s Drama department revisits The Laramie Project, an interview-based play written in the aftermath of a vicious crime. It runs at the Erickson Theater, beginning this Thursday (May 30) through June 8.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young White gay man in Laramie, Wyoming, was murdered by two men, who encountered him in a Laramie bar, offered him a ride, drove him to a remote area, and attacked him. He was beaten, tied to a fence post, burned, and abandoned there to die (after several days in a hospital on life support) in the cold fall Laramie night. His killers were each sentenced to life in prison.
Shepard’s murder became a rallying point for the anti-discrimination movements at a time when there were many tragedies to choose from, but few proving politically salient in a country with an ambivalent-at-best relationship with gay people. Here was a rallying cry that stuck: a young, White, clean-cut, college student, killed ruthlessly by some thugs in a purported anti-gay hate crime. (The specific motivation for the indisputably horrible crime has subsequently been disputed.)
Matthew Shepard became a household name. In the crime’s wake, his mother, Judy Shepard, became an outspoken advocate for gay rights, touring the country to speak out against hate. (I heard her speak in approximately 2003, at an event at Shoreline Community College, and traveled through Laramie the following summer.) Although the march toward equal rights was slow from there, and remains ongoing on many fronts, Shepard’s murder and the activism that followed in its wake were collectively something of a flashpoint, leading ordinary people to outrage at anti-gay hate, and culminating in better protections on the legislative front.
Driving through the Laramie area in 2004, all I could see were those fence posts, omnipresent there on the ranches that sprawl to the horizon, so commonplace but given a sinister meaning in light of Shepard’s murder. A place that will, for some outsiders like myself, always be synonymous with one event. And while the memory is seared into the minds of many of us who became teenagers and up in the late ‘90s, for others it may be a distant history, or a name never heard.
Now, hate crime reports are again on the rise nationally; and, particularly for Black trans women and other trans folks, they really never left. Emboldening latent hate, America’s current ugliness has included an epidemic of hate crimes on trans women of color, and in the past two weeks alone, three Black trans women were murdered. Their names are Muhlaysia Booker, Claire Legato, and Michelle (Tamika) Washington.
(Related: for art honoring trans people who have been murdered, and particularly trans women of color, see NWT’s coverage of Jono Vaughan’s Project 42 here.)
It’s this climate and the convergence — of ongoing hate and forgotten history — that called Seattle Central College Drama faculty member Shelley Douma to put up The Laramie Project, a widely produced play by Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, as the college’s annual spring production this year. The production, which Douma directs, will feature a cast of all Seattle Central student actors.
For Douma, the necessity was derived both internally (for her drama students), and externally. Of her students, she explained, “I chose the play because this fall, only one of my 30 students had heard of Matthew Shepard (and several of those students identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and two were in our queer literature class).” Of the timing for the larger community, she observed, “Hate and hate crimes are on the rise now, and this play talks about both in a way that asks us to think deeply and connect with our community to combat hate.”
The Laramie Project was created in the wake of Shepard’s murder, and accordingly focuses some on its details, of the night and the person. But it’s just as much about the town as the event — summoning the fears and feelings of the small town’s characters, for example, through extensive interviews with its residents, many of which are played out on stage. It’s through the mundane details that the life of the town — the everyday, the religious views, work ethics and philosophies — comes through.
It’s a play that speaks of the messy truths in a small town, and to the messy truth of a fragmented country in which we now find ourselves — one that existed long before the current person in power ever took office. It’s a play created from a specific moment, but as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.
The Laramie Project opens 5/30 and runs through 6/8 at the Erickson Theatre on Capitol Hill. Tickets $10, available at the door only (and CASH ONLY); show info available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible; ASL-interpreted performances scheduled for 5/31 & 6/8.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.