Many people in Laramie, Wyoming don’t think that Matthew Shepard was murdered in their town in 1998 because he was gay — they think that he wasn’t the victim of a hate crime, according to the extraordinary two-part work of theater and journalism, “The Laramie Project Cycle,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through February 24th. They believe this even though a new federal hate crime law is named after Shepard, even though the police who investigated the crime say the proof is conclusive, even though his murderer admits it.
It was a drug deal gone bad, a current student at the University of Wyoming – who was a toddler when UW student Shepard was murdered – tells one of the members of Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater company. It was just a robbery, company members were told again and again – including by the editor of the local newspaper.
“I think it’s time to let go and let the young man get on with his life – or with his death,” a car rental agent in Laramie says.
Based on interviews with people in the town of Laramie, “The Laramie Project,” first staged in 2000, has become (according to the current BAM program) “one of the most produced plays in theaters around the country” — almost 200 productions last year alone. That play is just Part I at BAM, performed by most of the original cast members who interviewed the real-life characters and played them on stage.
Part II (with separate admission) is “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” based on interviews when the company returned to find out what had changed, and what hadn’t.It is an inspired idea whose resonance goes beyond the story of this one murder or this one town, beyond even homophobia and hate. The entire cycle, but especially Part II, comes close to offering some fresh insight about human nature.
The years since Shepard’s death offer a mixed record, a nuanced one. The fence where Shepard was taken by his two assailants and beaten to death has been taken down; the townspeople were tired of the shrines. But his name is given to an annual symposium on social justice at the university and to a memorial bench there. The Wyoming State Legislature debated a bill to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman — but it was unexpectedly defeated, after legislators, including Republicans, invoked the name of Matthew Shepard. The university voted to give domestic partner benefits — but left it up to the university president to decide when to actually deliver on the policy, subject to the university (that had just laid off 45 staff) being able to afford it. health. Gay people don’t always feel comfortable, but the town now has an annual AIDS Walk, which includes a fundraising “drag queen bingo” at The Cowboy Bar. The policewoman who first discovered Shepard has retired, burned out. But another police officer has confronted his own prejudices, and helped Matt’s mother Judy Shepard lobby Congress to pass the hate crime prevention law.
The work pieces together the intertwining stories masterfully, with deceptively simple, understated staging: The eight actors mostly sit on chairs facing the audience. Yet there is subtle and effective stagecraft here — lighting, sound effects — and the actors assume the many different roles each plays persuasively enough to make their performances alone reason to see this show.
One of the work’s strong points is its manifest respect for its characters, even the haters and ignoramuses, and including the two convicted of Shepard’s murder, who give riveting interviews in prison. The people of Laramie are not dismissed as delusional hicks. They themselves are allowed sharp insights, touching revelations, and sometimes witty observations: A Laramie resident wryly recalls seeing a sign saying: “Wyoming Is Like No Place on Earth” – “rather than ‘…Like No Place ELSE on Earth.”
Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew, happened to be sitting a few rows behind me as Barbara Pitts played her on stage as she talks about her sorrows and her frustrations and her transformation from shy mother to national activist. “It was how I coped with losing Matt…I was talking to someone and they said ‘Well don’t you think maybe it’s time to let go, don’t you think you’re keeping Matt alive by doing that?’ And I said ‘Of course I’m keeping him alive by doing this! That’s the point!”
If there is any villain in The Laramie Project Cycle, it is the press. The press hounds the good townspeople. The media sensationalizes the story. ABC’s “20/20” in particular ran a segment about the case rife with errors in 2004 that some believe helped launch the town’s collect denial. But, whether they admit it or not, what Tectonic Theater is doing is journalism – very fine journalism – on the stage of the Harvey Theater.
At the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene
“Part 1: The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project; “Part 2: The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” by Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber; directed by Mr. Kaufman and Fondakowski; sets by Robert Brill; costumes by Moe Schell; lighting by Betsy Adams; projections by John Narun; sound by Leon Rothenberg; music by Peter Golub
Cast: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, Libby King, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts and Michael Winther.
Running time Part 1: three hours including two intermissions; Part 2: 2 hours including one intermission
Ticket prices: $20 (cheapest for one part) to $200 (most expensive for both parts)
Through Feb. 24.