“The Laramie Project” is not the kind of play meant to entertain. It’s not a distraction or a diversion, but is meant to spark thought — and maybe change.
The play will be performed by students at Capital High School, this weekend. It’s based on interviews taken from the town of Laramie, Wyoming, following the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student, in 1998.
“There’s not much of a plot, but it is the actual words of the people who lived in Laramie, who still live in Laramie, about the murder and what kind of impact it had on that town,” said Jeff Haught, theater director at Capital High School.
“The Laramie Project” was written by playwright Moises Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project, who went to Laramie after the murder and public outcry. They collected in-person interviews from Laramie citizens. The play also drew on news reports and journal entries from company members to create the narrative about what happened to Matthew Shepard and then what came after.
The death of Shepard was a touchstone moment in American culture. The nature of the crime — the 21-year-old was lured into a truck with another man and then taken out of town where he was beaten, tortured and left for dead — shocked the nation.
“The story went viral before things went viral on the internet,” Haught said. “The town was overwhelmed because of the publicity.”
But when the Techtonic Theater Project went in to talk to Laramie residents, people spoke their minds.
“They uncovered good people, bad people, people who stood in the vigil lines and people who thought Matthew Shepard got what he deserved,” Haught said.
The play shares some of those documented interviews.
The outcry about Shepard’s death became a catalyst that led to legislation that expanded federal hate crime law to apply to crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
It didn’t happen overnight, however. The Clinton administration attempted to expand the law but failed. Legislation didn’t pass during the Bush administration and was signed into law in 2009 by President Obama, 11 years after Shepard’s death.
While there is federal law, only about half of the country has some law recognizing sexual orientation in hate crime law.
Wyoming doesn’t and neither does West Virginia.
“The Laramie Project” has attracted controversy since it debuted 18 years ago. The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, known for its inflammatory protests, has picketed performances and there have been protests, though fewer now.
Haught said it was difficult material, but that Capital High School was as good a place as he could think of to produce the show.
“I don’t know of any place in the state that’s more accepting of diversity than Capital High School,” he said. “We’re the most diverse school in the state. Some may argue that point, but it’s an accepting place and place that’s firmly committed to anti-bullying and anti-discrimination.”
Haught said despite the controversy that has followed the show, he didn’t think it was judgmental, just a presentation of the words and feelings of the people of Laramie from that particular time.
Opinions, even among the residents of Laramie, Wyoming, may have changed, but the show isn’t dated.
Haught said, “It feels like we’ve made some progress, but the impact of this play and Shepard’s death is still very relevant today.”
Note: Following the 2 p.m. Sunday showing of “The Laramie Project,” members of the cast along with representatives from Fairness West Virginia and the ACLU will host a talkback and discussion with the audience.