The murder drew national attention to violence against gay people, and attracted the interest of theater director Moisés Kaufman, who turned the horror into art with “The Laramie Project.”
This 25th anniversary has triggered deep sadness for Kaufman, founder and artistic director of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project. He wonders about all the things Shepard could have become.
“Every year around this time, it’s painful to remember, but this one has hit particularly hard,” Kaufman tells the AP.
After Shepard's 1998 killing, Kaufman and members of Tectonic traveled to Laramie and wrote the play based on more than 200 interviews. “The Laramie Project” is a poignant mix of real news reports, and actors portraying friends, family, police officers, killers and other Laramie residents.
This week, Tectonic is marking the anniversary by gathering the original cast and creators, and some of the people represented in the piece for a staged reading and conversation as part of the 2023 Shepard Symposium at the University of Wyoming.
“The Laramie Project,” one of the most frequently performed plays in high schools, has been performed in more than 20 countries and translated into more than 13 languages. It is among the top 10 most licensed plays in America.
“Precisely because it wasn’t about Matthew Shepard, precisely because it was about the town of Laramie is why it continues to resonate,” says Kaufman.
"We were hoping that it wouldn’t be relevant anymore. But it is every day more relevant. Hate crimes all over our nation are at much higher rates than they were when Matthew Shepard was killed."
He points to an increase in anti-Asian incidents since the pandemic began, and assaults on transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
In 2009, Kaufman was on hand as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed by then-President Barack Obama. The act expanded the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
“The Laramie Project” has consistently been the subject of pushback by some conservative school districts, and this year faces banishment from Florida stages due to what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Elsewhere, theater creators across the nation say school censorship is getting worse, particularly around material with LGBTQ+ themes. Cardinal High School in Middlefield, Ohio, canceled a production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” due to content issues.
Kaufman is also alarmed that the Lansing Board of Education in Kansas voted to remove the script of “The Laramie Project” from the school curriculum.
“There has always been — since the inception — a couple of theaters every year where the board of the school says no. All right. But this last year was the first time that the book itself was banned from a classroom.”
Kaufman has always been cheered by the students who find a way to perform the play despite barriers, becoming what he calls artist-activists. “My belief is that the best art occurs at the intersection of the personal and the political,” he says.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits