Milwaukee actors participate in stage history
TCD’s dispatch from the local stage reading surrounding The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
On Monday, Oct. 12, as many as 100 theaters around the U.S. were expected to present a reading of a follow-up to the acclaimed play, The Laramie Project, the 2000 docudrama about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. Monday night’s event at the Zelazo Center, which was part play, part webcast and part reading, was subtitled “An Epilogue.” Yet, somehow the murder of the gay college student in Laramie, WY, continues to spark national interest even years after the hate crime. Shepard was killed by two men who singled him out at a bar and then nearly beat him to death. Shepard, then 21, was left tied to a fence and succumbed to his injuries six days later.
His story first came to prominence through playwright Moisés Kaufman, who staged his play with members of the Tectonic Theater Project in Denver and later in New York. Kaufman’s team interviewed hundreds of townspeople, who wrote journal entries of their own, and monitored media coverage during the murder trial. The team wanted to chronicle life in Laramie after the crime and to find out how people in the town felt about it and homophobia. The The Laramie Project was later adapted into a movie and is often shown in schools.
Fast-forward to the present. For the play The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, the team returned to the town of 27,000 residents to revisit the issues and people directly involved in the Shepard story. This resulting sequel of sorts includes jailhouse visits with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men sentenced for the killing. The satellite stage reading also included a subplot about the Defense of Marriage Act in the Wyoming state legislature.
The dramaturge came to a head locally with first-year members of the Youngblood Theatre Company and UWM Department of Theatre participating. On the international level, there were more than 130 performances throughout the U.S., and countries like Australia, Canada, China and Israel committed to the epilogue readings, too. Things kicked off via webcast at 7 p.m. CST with the opening presentation at New York’s Lincoln Center.
The evening’s webcast host was Glenn Close, who noted that this latest project was hatched at the same time that theaters try to figure out how to rally participation in national dialogues of this kind. She then introduced Matthew’s mother, Judy, who said that she believed that these awareness events have changed the world.
When Kaufman was introduced, he thanked the writers and spoke about using shared discourse as a way to create collective thinking. Then he turned the webcast over to the local groups.
Back at the Center, Youngblood founding member Michael Cotey spoke about the scope of responsibility that the evening represented.
Cotey then joined his stage comrades who included Benjamin James Wilson, Margeaux Reed, Rich Gillard, Tess Cinpinski, Tommy Stevens, Callie Eberdt and special guest Robin Mello. The local production was directed by stage vet Jonathan West.
The stage reading played out like a radio program.
Most of the play was fair to all sides and attempted to bring all aspects to light. But there were some highlights. These sections were the most descriptive and shone light on the personalities and motives of the two killers. Russell Henderson appeared to be ashamed for not doing more to prevent the death, while McKinney remained unrepentant for his deed.
McKinney said that he and Henderson picked Matthew Shepard because he was gay. McKinney equated the gay lifestyle with weakness. In the end, McKinney told the the interviewer that he is a criminal and deserved to be in prison.
“Nature trumps nuture,” McKinney repeated.
The 90-minute program concluded with a conversation between Judy Shepard and Moisés Kaufman and words from the Laramie community at large. If the only question left in this mystery is “why,” then it seems to be a question left unresolved.
The Laramie Project Online is a continual community. Go to the Project website to learn more.