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BOOKS & THE CULTURE We Are Waco, We Are Jasper BY EMILY RAPP SEITZ The Laramie Project: A play by Moises Kaufman Vintage Books 110 pages, $11. Shadows keep falling on the prairie in my mind. Memories keep calling from the land I left behind. from Wide Open Wyoming L aramie, 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 reportshypothermia, 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 diversityissues 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 Productions.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 happrocess, then, is one very clearly on the edgeof emotions, of loyalties, of dramatic shifts in thought and convictionand 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 stereotypesrednecks riding mechanical bulls or buffalo casually chewing away at brush on the side of the interstateimages 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 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/1/02