Editor’s note: Quotes attributed to Laramie residents are taken from actors involved in the Tectonic Theater Project’s “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.”
Zackie Salmon told an interviewer with a theater company that, in the now 11 years since the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, not enough has changed in the area.
The text of the interview with Salmon, spoken to a crowd in The Robert and Judi Newman Center at the University of Denver, read: “I think that hardcore Wyoming faction who said: ‘That little faggot got what he deserved’ –/they’re still right there, here. And they’re still teaching their children the same thing.”
Over the past two years, members of the Tectonic Theater Project have investigated the culture of the south Wyoming community that was shaken to its core in 1998 when Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was severely beaten and left to die on the Wyoming prairie.
The result of the project was presented in community and metropolitan theater crowds across the country and around the world Monday night as actors climbed onstage and read the interviews.
After their first visit, interviewers, including Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project and co-author of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” saw the impact that Shepard’s death had on the community.
In a Web casted speech that preceded the play’s performance from New York City, Kaufman said, “When we first arrived there, we saw a town that was so affected by what happened.”
“This murder has such resonance,” the director said. And with this production, he hopes that there will be a more “concrete and lasting change” as a result of the Shepard tragedy.
The play acts as an epilogue to a previous program that began in 2000 titled “The Laramie Project.”
In the wake of Shepard’s death, which happened five days after the beating, at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie, talking to residents and those involved in the investigation to measure the community reaction the tragedy.
Months and more than 200 interviews later, the company emerged with the play, which debuted on Feb. 19, 2000 at The Ricketson Theatre in Denver, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company in association with Tectonic Theater Project.
Conflicting views on change hold sway for Laramie, the nation
While there is still a lingering memory of that night 11 years ago, the town has grown, not only physically, but socially. For some, the flood of anger in the months following Shepard’s murder has ebbed.
“My gut is that Laramie is a somewhat better place to be than it was 10 years ago,” said Beth Loffreda, a professor at the University of Wyoming, when asked whether she saw change in her town.
Rob DeBree, the investigator from the Albany County Sheriff’s Department who worked on Shepard’s case, agreed.
“I don’t hear those words anymore,” Debree said, talking about derogatory remarks about the GLBT community.
But these optimistic opinions are mirrored by those with a more realistic view.
“I think the people who were outraged by Matthew Shepard’s murder are still outraged,” said Salmon, a University of Wyoming employee who advocates for domestic partnership benefits.
This wavering opinion ripples through the town, representing a nationwide debate. But for the most part, there is a picture of change emanating from the Wyoming town.
Some change hs taken place on a national level to the applause of many in the GLBT community. But some say progress is slow, and more is needed.
A piece of legislation, called The Matthew Shepard Act, is sitting on President Barack Obama’s desk that would label crimes against members of the GLBT community as hate crimes. All it needs to pass is a signature.
Similar measures, though, have been awaiting approval for nearly a decade.
“I enjoy the progress, and I appreciate it,” said Thomas Crews, an openly gay CSU student. “But it’s not happening fast enough and not enough is being done.”
Shepard’s parents still seeking acceptance for GLBT
Still, though, the effects of Shepard’s death are still evident to anyone willing to look closely enough.
For his mother, Judy, the past decade has been a long one, a road littered with pitfalls and small successes that keep her going, according to the play.
Since Matthew’s death, she has worked tirelessly to create a world more accepting of the GLBT community, one that will defend it and give it rights others enjoy.
With the creation of The Matthew Shepard Foundation, Judy has found others to join her in creating a world that, as their motto states on their Web site, will “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”
“I’m just doing what a mother does when you hurt her child,” she said when asked about her work all this time. “But I haven’t accomplished much yet.”
“I’m angrier now than I was then,” she admitted. “Ten years later and there’s still no progress . so here I am at the 10-year mark, still fighting.”
Play represents message of hope for GLBT community
Dave O’Malley, who was the lead investigator from the Laramie Police Department on Shepard’s case, said he remembers a time when he, like much of the town, was homophobic, unwilling to listen to GLBT issues.
“. As a result of what happened to Matt, I was thrust into a situation where I had to interact with the gay community,” he said, “and from where I was then to where my mind lays and heart lays now, is 180 degrees.”
In the aftermath of this tragedy, O’Malley said he found a respect for the GLBT community he once avoided.
But this revelation was sobered with a question he and others have had about what it takes to change a society’s attitude.
“Why does it take a young man like Matt getting killed for me to start losing my ignorance?” he asked, “. because that’s what it took.”
For many in Laramie, Shepard’s death forced a closer look at the social climate in the community, and for some it helped them to find a voice to talk about these tougher issues.
“I’m much more courageous now than I was before Matthew,” said Father Roger Schmit, the priest at the Catholic Newman Center in Laramie at the time of Shepard’s death. “Matter of fact, I wouldn’t be saying to you some of the things I am saying today if it wasn’t for Matthew Shepard.”
Along with this heightened acceptance for the GLBT community, Father Roger, as he is referred to throughout the performance, is also the character who encourages understanding of Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who have been widely condemned for the murder.
“Ask him about his remorse,” Father Roger told Greg Pierotti, a member of the Tectonic Theater Project. “You get to know him, Greg. Let him teach you what it’s like to be Aaron McKinney, OK?
“I think right now our most important teachers must be Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. They have to be our teachers.”
In its original production, Tectonic Theater Project hadn’t spoken to Henderson or McKinney, including their characters’ dialogue created from trial records and interviews after the murder. But this time, both men granted interviews.
It was this set of discussions with them the group hoped to emphasize the most in this play.
“Hearing the killers speak is a challenge,” said Jim Hunt, an actor and member of the Denver Center of Performing Arts. “What is weird but fascinating is that we want to hear the killers the most.”
Hunt performed as O’Malley and Shepard’s father, Dennis.
In an interview at a dress rehearsal, he said he felt it was important to talk to the killers to make sure that their points of view were shown.
“Why did they do this, and what made them do this?” he said. “These are important questions. What do they think now?”
During their moments on stage, the actors portraying McKinney and Henderson sat facing the audience, speaking the words each man said in the year-old interviews.
“I was one of those guys who was brought up with values, but I actually believed them,” Henderson said. “I believed the values. I was raised not to hurt people, and I agreed.”
“I just wish I could change what I did . I’m sorry for what I did to Matt’s family. That’s all I can really say.”
But Henderson’s sincerity wasn’t echoed in McKinney’s moment in the spotlight.
“I do have remorse,” McKinney said. “But for all the wrong reasons. For my dad. For ending up in here. For getting Russ stuck in here.”
Serving two consecutive life sentences in jail without parole, both men admitted they have accepted life in prison.
“You have to resign yourself to things, or you’ll go insane,” McKinney said. “But I’m better off in here, myself,” he admitted, going on to say that he was a criminal, that he “should be around criminals.”
When the play ended, audience members stood to present stories and anecdotes about personal experiences with the GLBT community.
“I’m a 61-year-old gay woman who has been fighting for rights for 40 years,” one audience member said from the crowd. “I’ve been out for all of it, but that’s not enough. . I’m always wavering between hope and tremendous despair, and after seeing this production, I can see there is still tremendous hope for the future.”
And that is what this performance was meant to be, said Thomas Howard, a member of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and actor in the play. “The message of the epilogue is hope.”
“It is the single most important thing we can do –/tell our stories and share our experiences.”
Assistant Design Editor Alexandra Sieh can be reached at email@example.com.