The legacy of Matthew Shepard

by Keith Barber

The legacy of Matthew Shepard


The Paper Lantern Theatre Company’s production of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, a cross between a stage play and a documentary about the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s death, was performed Monday at the Arts Council Theatre in Winston-Salem. The performance represented one of more than 150 staged readings held around the world on Oct. 12 to commemorate the anniversary of Shepard’s death. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

As the dramatic reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later drew to a close Monday night at the Arts Council Theatre in Winston-Salem, a photo of Matthew Shepard was projected on a large screen above the stage. For two full hours, 15 actors played the roles of the townspeople of Laramie, Wy., and all the real-life characters involved in a murder that shook the conscience of a nation. Finally, the audience got to see the 21-year-old man whose tragic death inspired a national dialogue about gay rights.

Molly McGinn then strummed her electric guitar and belted out a stirring rendition of the song “Scarecrow” in honor of Shepard. “This was our brother/ this was our son,” McGinn sang.

As the lights came up and the players took their bows, the audience rose to its feet and expressed its heartfelt thanks for a spirited performance by cast members Sharon Andrews, Whit Andrews, Ken Ashford, Tim Austin, Miriam Davie, Linda Donnell, Sheila Duell, Mallorie Grady, Michael Huie, Ari Itkin, Hardy Koenig, Preston Lane, Heidi McIver, Mark Pirolo, Cheryl Ann Roberts, Andrew R. Rush and Jeffrey West. Director Amy da Luz deserves much credit for the phenomenal performances.

The Laramie Project, a hybrid between a documentary and a play, was written by Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project. Based on more than 200 interviews with the townspeople of Laramie, Shepard’s friends and relatives, the play also included transcripts of police interviews with convicted killers Aaron McKinney and Russell Thompson as well as trial transcripts.

Beth Ritson, one of the founding members of the Paper Lantern Theatre Company, opened the evening by sharing with the audience that more than 150 theatre companies around the nation and the globe would be performing a reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later that very night to mark the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.

“We are gathering to understand, to dialogue and to heal,” Ritson said. “We are gathering most importantly to remember Matthew Shepard and to play our part in this larger vision.”

On Oct. 6, 1998, McKinney and Russell offered Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, a ride home from the Fireside Lounge in downtown Laramie. Later, Shepard was robbed, tied to a split-rail fence, tortured and left to die. During his trial, it was revealed that Thompson and McKinney targeted Shepard because he was gay. The heinous crime drew national and international attention and eventually led to hate crimes legislation, which still languishes in the US Senate.

On Monday night, audiences around the world heard what has changed, and what hasn’t changed in the small prairie town of Laramie in the past 10 years.

“I just hope the community remembers just how ugly hate is,” Reggie Fluty, the police officer that first discovered an unconscious Shepard, said.

Deb, the editor of the Laramie Boomerang, takes a position that many of her neighbors agree with: The attack on Matthew Shepard was not a hate crime.

“It’s hard when you’re ashamed to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, we’ve screwed up,’” Fluty says.

A report by the TV show “20/20” about Shepard’s murder angers police investigator Dave O’Malley, who later discovers a memo from the show’s producer revealing a bias by the network to label the attack a robbery gone bad.

Beth, a university professor, refers to US Rep. Virginia Foxx’s (R-NC) statement that calling Shepard’s a hate crime is a hoax.

Henderson expresses remorse for his actions, but McKinney doesn’t feel anything.

“Matthew Shepard needed killing,” McKinney tells Greg Pierotti.

An actress performing the words of Cathy Connolly, the first openly gay Wyoming state representative, offers a hopeful story about the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act, but states, “There is a lot more work to do.”

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is a profound epilogue and the continuation of that important dialogue. Paper Lantern Theatre, one of only two theatre companies in the state to stage readings of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, deserves great praise and admiration for doing so.