It's rare to listen to a staged reading of a documentary theater script so compelling that it grips one's attention for 80 minutes.
"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," which premiered Oct. 12 in 150 theaters across all 50 states and around the world - including Princeton's James M. Stewart '32 Theater at 185 Nassau St. - achieves just this.
The production is an epilogue to the Tectonic Theater Project's widely acclaimed play "The Laramie Project," which has been sending shockwaves through theaters around the world since premiering in 2002. "The Laramie Project" chronicles the Laramie community's reaction to the horrific death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard. On Oct. 7, 1998, the gay college student was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and abandoned on the outskirts of Laramie. He died in a Colorado hospital five days later. Just before the 10th anniversary of Shepard's death, members of Tectonic returned to Laramie to interview the community about the crime's long-term impact. From those interviews, "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" was born.
In a structure similar to the original "Laramie Project," 11 actors play 59 different roles in the new show - from the police officers who investigated the case to Shepard's parents to - most astoundingly - the two killers.
The play's reliance on verbal testimony instead of physical movement allows it to hold up remarkably well even in a dramatic reading. Michael Cadden, the director of the theater department, and McCarter Theatre's Mara Isaacs, who helped produce the original "Laramie Project," directed Monday night's performance at Princeton. Structured as a series of thematic "moments" linked by a minimalist narrator, played by Cadden, the production places disparate, often conflicting, perspectives in conversation with each other.
Both explicitly and implicitly, the stories captured within these "moments" continually pose the question: How does one measure change within a community? A priest says he discusses sexual identity in his sermons now, and a gay professor talks about feeling comfortable being "completely out," but others lament the unsuccessful fight to extend the hate crime statute to include homosexuality. The past 10 years weigh heavily on the minds of Laramie residents, but legally, Shepard's death has made hardly a dent.
Equally important is the illustration of the corrosive effect of time on the collective memory and understanding of the Shepard crime. One of the most fascinating and insidious changes within Laramie over the past decade has been the shift from a community understanding of the murder as a hate-crime motivated by Shepard's sexuality to the perception that it was simply "a drug deal gone bad" or a robbery that spun out of control. An ABC "20/20" episode in 2004 did much to promote this revision of history, the play argues, despite the fervent rejection of multiple officers and investigators on the case. In one of the play's most revelatory "moments" a local folklorist discusses the ways that "people claim control over their stories." There is often a "winnowing away of detail, till frequently the actual story dissipates," he observes.
"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" climaxes with the interviews of Shepard's killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, both of whom are serving two consecutive life-imprisonment sentences. The terrifying passivity of Henderson, who, in his own words, "just went along" and tried "to pretend it wasn't happening," and the chilling lack of remorse of McKinney, who still claims "Matt Shepard needed killing," are as psychologically revealing as they are morally repugnant.
Besides the anniversary of Shepard's death, Monday's world premiere of "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" was timely for another reason. On Oct. 8, the U.S. House of Representatives voted affirmatively to expand the definition of federal hate crimes to include motivations based on prejudices about sexual orientation. The bill that proposes this statue is known as The Matthew Shepard Act. According to a recent New York Times article, the bill has solid support in the Senate and from President Obama.
In the play, Matthew's mother Judy Shepard says, "I always say, ‘We've had 10 years of change but no progress.' " If, as expected, the Senate votes to pass the bill this week, Mrs. Shepard may never have reason to say that again. But even if the measure fails, "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" promises to keep fighting for Matthew's legacy, if only on the stage.