At the age of 8, Matthew Shepard was dressing up as Dolly Parton for Halloween. At the same age, Aaron McKinney was sneaking through doggy doors to rob houses. Thirteen years later the two young men would encounter each other in Laramie, Wyoming, on a night that would become a watershed in American cultural history. Such details have added poignancy as well as elements of Greek tragedy to the “The Laramie Project Cycle,” which is being presented by the Tectonic Theatre Project at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre through February 24. Shortly after the October 1998 murder of Shepard by McKinney and Russell Henderson — a brutal gay-bashing that made national headlines — Tectonic members arrived in Laramie to conduct interviews with law officials and town residents, out of which they fashioned the first part of this riveting and moving docudrama. It was originally presented off-Broadway in 2000.
In 2008, on the 10th anniversary of the slaying, Tectonic returned to Laramie to note changes in the social attitudes of the community. They also wanted to refute a growing alternative theory, reinforced by a 2004 report on ABC’s “20/20,” that the crime was fueled by drugs and not anti-gay violence. ARTINFO recently spoke with Moises Kaufman, the artistic director of the Tectonic Theatre Project and co-director, with Leigh Fondakowski, of the cycle.
The residents were not as welcoming the second time around. Why?
People were very invested in this murder not being because Matthew was gay. The psychology is that if these boys killed Matt because he was gay that means we are homophobic society. And we don’t want to think of ourselves as a homophobic society. We have to find a way to rewrite history. And the “20/20” ABC-TV report didn’t help.
Why do you think that Elizabeth Vargas on the “20/20” segment was, in your opinion, so egregious?
I have no idea. Vargas is a very shady reporter. I’m not sure what she does or why she does it. But PBS did a point-by-point rebuttal of the program. When people say it wasn’t about Matt being gay or that it’s the liberal media or gay press agenda to make it that way, then it’s just an extension of that need to rewrite history. It’s a kneejerk response but one that is very detrimental because it forbids progress from truly occurring.
Did you have an agenda when you went?
I think it would be a lie or disingenuous to say that we had no agenda. I think anybody who starts a conversation has an agenda. That is why we put ourselves in the play, something for which we were heavily criticized in 2000 when the play was first produced. But I wanted the public to see that we are New York theater people with all our biases and preconceptions who found ourselves in a Western town in the middle of nowhere. I’m a gay person, a Jewish person, a Latino person. I have many biases, many chips on my shoulder. How could that not influence my writing? But we also had an obligation, as any artist does, to uncover and reveal truth.
Did you sense the desire of some Laramie residents to “let Matthew go” put them in the same category as those who are impatient with blacks talking about slavery or Jews about the Holocaust?
Which narrative gets told constructs not just the past but the present and future. The people of Laramie continue to feel as though Matt’s murder is a stain on their reputation and their identity. If people think of Laramie as the place where Matthew was murdered, then people deal with that responsibility in different ways.
Is the denial fed by shame?
Yes. And I would add [the need for] absolution. One of the characters says that when you are very ashamed, you have to own up to what you are ashamed of and really examine it. Or you can change it. It’s a very human reaction. The main newspaper in Laramie, on the 10th anniversary, wrote an editorial that stated that the murder was not because Matt was gay. And they added, “Laramie is a community, not a project.” At first I was offended and then delighted. It meant that we had become an effective part of the national discourse.
But doesn’t the entire nation have to own Matthew Shepard’s death just as we have to own Sandy Hook or James Byrd’s racist murder in Texas?
Absolutely. Laramie is not different from the rest of the nation. “The Laramie Project” is one of the most produced plays in America because there are thousands of towns across this country which are just like Laramie. The reason why Laramie became what it became is not because of Matthew Shepard but because of the 30 years of Civil Rights action preceding it. There was Stonewall and AIDS, which forced people to come out of the closet. And then you had this “crucifixion” in the middle of the American West…
You mean Shepard being tied to a fence, beaten, and left to die by McKinney and Henderson, the whole Christian iconography…
Yes. This played a huge role in our very visual culture. A white, photogenic, upper-middle class college student. It was a perfect storm and Matthew was the lightning rod. You couldn’t pick up a paper without reading something about it. And we, as a country, were ready to hear that story.
Ten years later, you talked to the murderers themselves. Aaron McKinney comes off as something of a sociopath but Russell Henderson seems like one dumb, unlucky sunovabitch.
It’s hard to say what happened that night, which is the true nature of history. But even Judy Shepard [Matthew’s mother] would say that Russell did very little that night. He tied up Matthew but very loosely so he could get away. And he tried to stop Aaron until he himself was beaten him into silence. But his crime was that he didn’t do or say anything during the 18 hours before Matt’s body was found.
That’s eerie given that just the year before Russell’s own mother had been raped, beaten, and froze to death on the outskirts of Laramie. Was this some kind of twisted subconscious response to sorrow and guilt?
It is eerie but almost impossible to get into Russell’s head. I don’t think this was an act that Russell on his own would have ever done. I think he may eventually get out of jail because of that.
The only reason that’s even a possibility is because Judy and Dennis Shepard appealed to the judge to spare Russell’s life.
It’s positively Greek tragedy. It’s a father giving life back to the person who killed his son. He could have let that boy die. He believed in the death penalty. But as Judy said, “We don’t think that taking anybody’s son would have fixed anything.”
What did you learn about the nature of forgiveness in doing this piece?
Perhaps that it’s the most difficult of all human experiences. It requires a level of spiritual evolution that most of us lack.
Why do you suppose that despite a hate crime bill and other advances of civil rights, anti-gay violence is on the rise?
Whenever there is progress, there is a backlash. As a gay man, I have reasons to be optimistic but that doesn’t mean that the process of change isn’t incredibly arduous and painful and that people aren’t resentful of it.
They tore down the fence. What would you have done with it?
I would have bought the piece of land and made it into a place where people could go. Others would have put it in a museum. Dennis Shepard told me, “It’s better that it’s gone. I don’t want to remember that the place existed.”