“The Laramie Project”: Matthew Shepard, 20 Years Later

Uprising Theatre Company stages interviews with residents of the Wyoming town where Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay

Cast of “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” (left to right): Michael Novak, Seth Matz, Tia Tanzer, Baku Campbell, Juliette Aaslestad, Jessica Thompson Passaro, and Bruce Manning/Photo by Shannon TL Kearns

Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in Laramie, Wyoming, 20 years ago centered the term “hate crime” in the national conversation.

Two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, had lured 21-year-old Shepard into a truck, robbed him, pistol-whipped him, then tied him to a fence post, tortured him, and left him to die. Police quickly traced the crime. In a tape-recorded interview days later, according to a detective’s testimony, McKinney explained why their successful robbery then escalated to extreme violence and murder. McKinney and Henderson had pretended to be gay to lure Shepard. Then, in the truck, McKinney said, Shepard moved his hand toward McKinney’s leg. McKinney told Shepard, “You’re going to get jacked. It’s Gay Awareness Week.”

Justifying the violence to his girlfriend, according to police testimony, McKinney said, “Well, you know how I feel about gays.”

McKinney and Henderson were sentenced to life in prison. It was deemed a hate crime—motivated by anti-gay sentiments. But as with any tragedy that gets wrung out in national news, Shepard’s story was far from over. A few weeks ago, October 12 marked the 20th anniversary of his murder, and the headlines came back. Articles recounted, lamented, and contested the events—some of them truly tasteless. At least one blamed the LGBTQ community for pushing a false narrative about Shepard’s killers’ motives, suggesting that drugs, not homophobia, inspired the crime.

In 2000, two years after Shepard’s murder, New York playwright Moisés Kaufman traveled to Laramie, along with members of Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, to collect an oral history. They wanted to document the town’s reactions, to see how people were remembering and coping. They talked with residents, staff at the University of Wyoming, where Shepard went to school, and many who felt personally affected by the murder or else characterized it as a stain on Laramie that needed covering up.

Kaufman’s team returned on the 10th anniversary for follow-up interviews, and they got access to McKinney, too. (At Howard Conn Theatre, both The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later are running. See show dates here.)

Central to the play is whether Shepard’s murder actually constituted a hate crime. The killers’ 1998 testimony seems to leave little room for doubt. But years after McKinney’s conviction, he and his girlfriend changed their accounts. ABC’s 20/20 ran with it, and Shepard’s death became a point of debate.

Kaufman’s play tracks the rumors that spread. Despite tests showing the killers hadn’t been on drugs, some point to altered states and drug-scene intrigue. This prompted Kaufman to sit down with a folklorist to discuss how and why stories that flout evidence (alternative facts, fake news) catch on.

Through November 17 at Howard Conn in Minneapolis, it’s fascinating to hear that folklorist’s explanation—among the many documented voices sounding, at turns, scared, enraged, exhausted, confused, and righteous.

The seven-member ensemble cast deftly navigates a sprawling script over two hours, and they make each character memorable, from Cathy Connolly, the first openly gay member of the Wyoming State Legislature, to Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mom.

Actor Seth Matz delivers engrossing performances as McKinney and Henderson, and these two interviews raise the play to a new level. Because, of course, McKinney and Henderson cannot be the one-dimensional villains many might wish they were. Talking with McKinney, interviewer Greg Pierotti betrays frustration as McKinney surrenders to his own fuzzy memory and insists that, even though he plainly does not like gay people, he has no issue coexisting with them in prison. Plus, he says, he targeted Shepard for multiple reasons—because he dressed like he might have had a lot of money on him, for instance.

In the audience, we, too, are left frustrated. We might move forward legislatively and symbolically. (Shepard was finally laid to rest last month, interred at the Washington National Cathedral.) But closure remains out of reach.

So, what can we get out of remembering Shepard? His name means more than who Shepard was, as a friend of his points out. It stands for legal action against hate crimes. It reminds us of the higher rates of violence LGBTQ people face. It places us, as it did Laramie’s residents, in discomfort. We see the progress we’ve made and still need to make. And we note our own tendencies to believe what we want to believe and create fictions where convenient.

Produced by Uprising Theatre Company, the play’s move to action extends to the lobby, where local social-justice organizations have tables set up. There, audience members can learn how to get involved. (These include Avenues for Homeless Youth, a host home program for LGBTQ youth, and Quatrefoil Library, which circulates donated books about the LGBTQ community.)

The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later
Through November 17
Howard Conn Theatre
1900 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis