We Are Waco, We Are Jasper

Shadows keep falling on the prairie in my mind. Memories keep calling from the land I left behind. –from Wide Open Wyoming

Laramie, Wyoming springs up from the flat land in a blizzard of light, the low hills on one side, a scattering of houses clinging to the prairie on the other; railroad cars rumble across the pink-tinged horizon as the train whistle rolls into the uninterrupted distance of light and sky. This is the city of my childhood: a place of tumbleweeds and snowstorms, dusty cattle fairs and rodeos, Western shop fronts and ranchwear outfitters. I learned to drive on the road that passes the university campus, fast food restaurants, and the local grocery before opening out and east to Cheyenne.

In October 1998, near that same lonesome road outside Laramie, Matthew Shephard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was tied to a fence after being kidnapped and brutally beaten with a fist, a belt, and the butt of a gun. The perpetrators were Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, two local boys who left Matthew begging for his life.

Far away in a Boston apartment, I listened to the reports—hypothermia, a fractured skull, injuries likened to the effect of a car crashing at 80 MPH—and was stunned. As a Laramie native, was I among those who allowed this to happen? I felt a tension like a rope being tightened inside me. I did not want to claim that Laramie anymore.

But as the calls from Laramie friends poured in, I began to feel differently. I wanted to go home: to breathe the pine-scented air, to attend a vigil, to cast out the reporters, to comfort my friends, to chastize those with homophobic attitudes. To mourn. To blame. To hurt. And I also wanted to prove that I was not a product of a town that would allow such cruelty, such horror.

Matthew Shephard’s murder transformed Laramie from an idyllic city characterized by good people, wind, and open stretches of land into the geographical apex of a much larger cultural dialogue about the interrelationship of homophobia, sexual politics, race, class, tolerance, and diversity—issues at work beneath the surface simplicity of this town and others like it.

Digging beneath this surface is a delicate process of excavation and one that falls squarely within the project scope of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, a theater company that seeks to analyze current events while exploring theatrical language and form. Over a year-and-a-half-long period beginning in November 1998, Kaufman and nine company members made six trips to Laramie and conducted over 250 interviews, which were then edited and transcribed. Part oral history, part docudrama, The Laramie Project paints a complex, if incomplete, portrait of a town and its struggle to wrest order from chaos. Off-Broadway critical acclaim followed the play?s 2000 debut in Denver, and The Houston Chronicle recently praised the “earnest and affecting premiere” by Stages Repertory Theatre/Unhinged Produc-tions. The play makes its Austin debut at the Zachary Scott Theater February 21-April 7.

A three-act episodic narrative, the edited interviews are arranged as “moments” or snapshots that give the reader a sense of being dropped into the midst of a vivid, unattractive, and very human mess in the months immediately following Matthew’s death: blame is still being assigned, the how and why questions examined to their breaking point. These are raw stories from a town just beginning to heal and recover from trauma (“shit happens and it happens in Laramie”). The process, then, is one very clearly on the edge—of emotions, of loyalties, of dramatic shifts in thought and conviction—and thus lends itself well to the re-telling of Shephard’s murder when more traditional methods of storytelling may have failed. The play’s structure allows insightful observations about Laramie residents without lapsing into easy stereotypes—rednecks riding mechanical bulls or buffalo casually chewing away at brush on the side of the interstate—images so often associated with Wyoming and the mythic Wild West that they have come to stand for it. The play pokes fun at these stereotypes in well-spaced moments of humor greatly needed in a work of such emotional gravity.

The “moments” explore reactions to Matthew?s murder in an attempt to make some sense of why and how it happened. Laramie residents and the company members who interviewed them speak candidly and honestly, with equal stage time given to those with “high, whoop-de-do jobs” and minimum wage positions, students and professors, pastors and ranchers, doctors and reporters. From this diverse group we hear eyewitness accounts: the bartender who is the last person to see Matthew alive, the young man who finds Matthew at the fence (“I just thought it was a scarecrow”) as well as opinions from those directly linked with the perpetrators: the girlfriend of Aaron McKinney who claims that Matthew “came on” to him and the Mormon teacher who stands by Russell Henderson. We witness the moving transformation of several university students: one budding lesbian activist determined to drown out the nauseating protest staged by a fundamentalist Christian minister at Matthew’s funeral and a theater student who revises his views on homosexuality and pledges acceptance and tolerance. There are the quiet, behind-the-scenes voices of the president of the University of Wyoming, who deals tirelessly with the barrage of media interest in the city, and ranchers, keen to detract attention from the event, who insist that “hate is not a Laramie value.” Others are vocal about what Laramie?s course of action should be: the Catholic priest implores the community to respond with compassion and a young woman observes that “there are people trying to distance themselves from this crime. And we need to own this crime. I feel. Everyone needs to own it. We are like this. We are like this. We are like this.” The chorus of voices is compelling, disparate, and painfully real.

Although the play reveals a level of emotion that makes for gripping theater, it also begs the question of presentation. After all, the “characters” of The Laramie Project are real people—their real names are used, their verbatim words recorded and spoken aloud by the actors. This gives the impression that what is on paper and on stage is the objective truth, when very clear aesthetic choices have been made for the purposes of staging a production. In other words, the interviews have been chosen deliberately and organized intentionally in order to emphasize some moments over others.

After the first act, this deft manipulation upsets the otherwise delicate balance Kaufman strikes between oral history and theater. In Act One there is a palpable intimacy between the company members and local residents—the moments feel wonderfully authentic and profound. The play reaches its emotional pinnacle at the end of this act with the voice of the emergency room doctor, who treats both Matthew Shephard and Aaron McKinney (admitted for treatment of wounds incurred in a fight later that same evening). “They were both my patients and they were two kids,” he says. “I took care of both of them— of both their bodies.” The tone of the second and third acts is newsy and straightforward, switching from the first act’s engaging synthesis of the townspeople’s thoughts and emotions to a more cursory treatment. Instead, we plod a bit methodically through the perpetrators’ trial and Matthew’s funeral, with little reflection on these events from the characters or the company members. It creates a jarring distance from the characters we have come to care for in Act One.

Thankfully, the play does not lose sight of the single indisputable fact: the loss of a human life. Regardless of whether or not Laramie is emblematic of the transformation a town experiences after a heinous crime —”After Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime. We’ve become Waco. We’ve become Jasper. We’re a noun, a definition, a sign”—the loss of Matthew Shephard is great and deeply felt in all of the play’s many moments. Matthew was a son and a friend, a young man about to turn 21 who still wore braces, a soft-spoken student interested in human rights. The haunting question: “What would he have become?” nags at the reader throughout the narrative.

The real villains in this play emerge as outsiders, which is perhaps the play’s greatest weakness. The media—depicted as tenacious vulture-like beasts that descend upon Laramie and proceed to offend the blameless residents while making the situation so sensationalized as to appear ridiculous—become the scapegoats. The feeling of chaos is re-created on stage using a cluster of television screens that drop from a high ceiling, playing loud, simultaneous reports in a cacophony of unintelligible sound and light. There is little doubt that the media exacerbated the delicate emotions of a community in crisis, but this demonization of the media offers a convenient way out of a tricky analysis, while also serving to clearly differentiate Kaufman and the company members from the predatorial reporters. We are led to believe that the theater company trickled in respectfully to interview and discover, while the morally vacuous media swooped in just for the story.

With this harrowing depiction of the media, Kaufman sidesteps any direct indictment of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The young men admit their culpability, but with a marked indifference. They appear to have no insight into their motivations for murder apart from an ambiguous “gay panic.” This sobering and confusing situation is only briefly analyzed, although it seems to be the key to wresting some kind of meaning from such a violent act.

The members of the Tectonic Theater Project set off for Wyoming to find answers. That they ultimately fail to do so is perhaps the work’s greatest strength. The moments shift and tremble to create a jagged portrait of the truth, one with ill-defined edges. The lessons and meaning of this hate crime are dubious, the knowledge we glean, fragmentary. And perhaps this is just as it should be. Because the questions remain. The people portrayed in The Laramie Project, like the tragic circumstances that generated the play, are real: They still live in Laramie, dealing with this event, living their lives.

As a Laramie native, the play has acted as a touchstone for continuing dialogue with friends and family in my hometown and now in Austin—new “moments” that are in keeping with the Tectonic mission of examining the forces that move and create the world we live in. And this powerful play is not easily forgotten, regardless of where we live or where we?re from. It forces readers and viewers alike to reckon with the fallout from a hate crime; to empathize with community residents with whom we may have little in common; to engage opinions that snag and shift our perspective. This is the project of reading or seeing The Laramie Project. And if this play teaches us anything, it is that this is necessary work.

Observer intern Emily Rapp Seitz lives in San Marcos and is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST