In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, “You never really know a person until you climb inside his skin and walk around.” A tragic event in a small town often gives us this opportunity. When the tragedy is still fresh and we are still numb with the horror of it all, we may say, yes, we’ll climb inside his skin to feel empathy or try to understand this person who we never knew. Or, we may harden and look away, turn an open palm, straight and stiff, against the offer, not wanting to have anything to do with someone who we know was nothing like us. We may avert our eyes and walk off in a swash of diffused responsibility.
When Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was brutally beaten, tied to a fence outside of town and left to die, the people in Laramie, Wyo. were forced to take a closer look at themselves, their families, their neighbors. In fact, this reevaluation extended far beyond the city limits of Laramie. Shepard’s murder became a symbol of America’s struggle against intolerance. Each of us had to look in the mirror and wonder anew just how deep our prejudices run .
Created by Moisés Kaufman (who also wrote Gross Indecency, a play about the trials of Oscar Wilde) and the members of Tectonic Theatre Company, The Laramie Project is a collage of voices, a theatrical ebb and flow that tells the story of the events that led to and followed the death of Matthew Shepard. Based on more than 200 interviews with the people of Laramie, as well as journal entries from some of the company members, The Laramie Project is not a traditional play of three acts, but rather a mosaic of “moments.”
In it, we meet Reggie Fluty, the police officer who answered the 911 call and discovered Shepard on the fence. A wife and mother, she recalls: “He was barely breathing … he was doing the best he could. … He was covered in, like I said, partially dry blood and blood all over his head—the only place that he did not have any blood on him, on his face, was what appeared to be where he had been crying down his face.”
We meet bartender Matt Galloway: “So what can I tell you about Matt? If you had a hundred customers like him it’d be the—the most perfect bar I’ve ever been in. OK? And nothing to do with sexual orientation. Um, absolute mannerisms. Manners. Politeness, intelligence.”
Catherine Connolly, a lesbian and professor at the University of Wyoming, recalls being one of more than two hundred people who attended the arraignment: “The fact that the perpetrators were kids themselves, local kids, that everyone who’s from around here has some relationship to. Everyone was really I think waiting on pins and needles for what would happen when the perpetrators walked in. … They walked in in their complete orange jumpsuits and their shackles, and you could have heard a pin drop.”
We meet Rulon Stacy, one of the doctors who tried to save Shepard’s life. After his patient’s death, he received countless e-mails from people all over the country. One read: “Do you cry like a baby on TV for all your patients or just the faggots?” In reaction, Stacy says, “As I told you before, homosexuality is not a lifestyle with which I agree. Um, but having been thrown into this … I guess I didn’t understand the magnitude with which some people hate.”
There is the outspoken Catholic priest, Father Roger Schmidt, who says: “You think violence is what they did to Matthew—but you know, every time that you are called a fag, or you are called a you know, a lez or whatever … do you realize that is violence? That is the seed of violence.”
Each voice—each question asked, answer proffered, thought put forth—is like one color in an oriental rug; you can only see the whole design when all the colors are woven together. The writers of The Laramie Project, it seems, could not have developed a more effective and poignant means of telling this story. Though a play is written to be seen, to be witnessed as a live event with players creating a world on a stage, this play reads like a novel; the authors have breathed life into the people of this small Wyoming town. According to the stage notes, the play is to be performed with minimal props, and costumes that consist of a shirt, hat, or pair of reading glasses. Again, The Laramie Project is intended to ride on the strength of the words alone.
One character says: “If you would have asked me before, I would have told you Laramie is a beautiful town, secluded enough that you can have your own identity. … A town with a strong sense of community—everyone knows everyone. … Now, after Matthew, I would say Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime. We’ve become Waco, we’ve become Jasper. We’re a noun, a definition, a sign.”
When the theatre company arrived in Laramie for the first time, one of the members noticed the sign: “Wyoming—Like No Place on Earth.” It struck him that maybe it was meant to say, “Like No Place Else on Earth.” Perhaps any town—when the spotlight is shined upon it—feels like “no place on Earth.”