Commentary and review of the plays The Laramie Project, The Laramie Project Ten Years Later, and the film The Laramie Project.
“Some things, only artists can do. Some things, only artists can do. And it’s our job.” Toni Morrison
I didn’t want to read The Laramie Project. I had put it off for years. Why revisit something that was so horrible, that makes me sad and uncomfortable, I thought. And besides, I rationalized, I’m up to date on LGBTQ+ politics. I’ve taken the teacher trainings.Like everyone (whether we know it or not) I have good friends and family who are gay. I changed my profile photo on social media to the rainbow background when the Supreme Court made its ruling. I felt horrible when Matthew Shepherd was killed, but what good would it do to revisit the images of him tied to the fence, brutally beaten, or him lying in a coma as his parents kept vigil?
I did read The Laramie Project, though, when work required it. It is on the reading list for a modern theater class I teach, and a writing coach client I work with modeled his play after it, so I had no choice. From the first page, I was engrossed. Beyond Moises Kaufman’s groundbreaking use of “the moment” instead of the “scene”, beyond the excellence of the script itself, I was riveted as if I were a voyeur to the retelling of the events in 1998-1999. Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project descended on Laramie in the height of the controversy and stayed for months conducting interviews with citizens. I quickly realized that The Laramie Project is not a retelling of the murder of Matthew Shepherd as much as it is an anatomy of a town caught in global headlights at a private, shameful moment. I squirmed right along with them. Beneath the events that drive the plot, the play is about humanity’s capacity to rationalize, to ignore evil, and at isolated, heroic moments, to stand up to it.
I didn’t want to read The Laramie Project Ten Years later, either. But, it’s part of the publication my students will study in Modern Theatre, so I took a deep breath and turned the page. The play is briefer than The Laramie Project, structured in two acts rather than three. Moises Kaufman returns to Laramie a decade after Shepherd’s murder. Several of the writers/actors who accompanied him ten years earlier come along as well. Two of them, Stephen Belber and Gregory Pierotti, go to prisons to interview Shepherd’s murderers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. In Laramie they are surprised to receive a much cooler reception than they had a decade earlier, in the immediate trauma of Shepherd’s death, the town’s reaction, and the town’s changing identity. Now Kaufman and company are told to just “let it go”. The town has moved on, they are told. In fact, though, many people in the town had not moved on but rather rewritten history, playing loose with the facts. The reinvented history blames drugs (drugs that were not in fact ingested) rather than homophobia and hate. The Laramie Project Ten Years Later is not so much about Laramie but about our capacity as humans to deliberately turn from truth out of our desire for emotional comfort. This is, of course, something we all do in one way or another.
Continuing my pattern of denial, I didn’t want to watch the film The Laramie Project, either. It seemed a good idea to order it from Netflix when I began to read the plays. But certainly, I reckoned, I’d made myself uncomfortable enough. Still, I thought of my client and his play, and realized how helpful it would be to see the characters in physical form, and in particular, to study the pacing and see Kaufman’s “moments” in action. Just as I began watching, my husband walked through the living room to retrieve something. He was busy working outside. I’d been telling him about both plays, and news junkie that he is, he remembers a good deal about Shepherd’s murder and the aftermath in Laramie. Instead of retrieving whatever he was after, he sat down. Just for a moment, he said. But an hour and half later he was still there, on the edge of his seat as I was. The film follows the original play, but is in fact a film, not a filming of the theatrical event. The all-star cast (Peter Fonda, Janeane Garafolo, and the guy with the crazy eyes from Deeds, among others) brings Kaufman’s script vividly to life. The documentary style seems stark at first, but ends up enveloping the viewers while leaving them plenty of space to watch with disdain and sadness as the events unfold.
I’m ready to put my book back on the current project shelf on my desk, now. I’m packaging up the film in the red return envelope. I fought hard, but I’m grateful I lost. Kaufman’s trilogy of sorts is not about Matthew Shepherd or Laramie, Wyoming as much as it about humanity’s capacity to hate, to retreat from justice into cowardice, and to willingly turn from truth. The story is about all of us at our worst. It’s a mirror that we desperately need from time to time, no matter how good our intentions are.