No one plays Matthew Shepard in “The Laramie Project.”
The piece of documentary theater was inspired by Shepard’s murder: The gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was brutally beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo., 15 years ago. The play that Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project wrote the year after the murder is made up of courtroom testimony, news reports and interviews with Laramie residents.
But Shepard is not among the dozens of characters. His killers are there, and some of his friends. Law enforcement officials. A judge, a doctor. His father. If Shepard’s murder was an earthquake, “The Laramie Project” studies the aftershocks. What happened to this community? What happened to this country?
Ford’s Theatre is staging the play as the third installment in its Lincoln Legacy Project, which aims to explore diversity and tolerance. The production not only coincides with the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death but is also the first professional staging of “The Laramie Project” in Washington.
“I’m doing it at Ford’s Theatre. That’s the part that makes this feel so important,” said Matthew Gardiner, the associate artistic director of Signature Theatre who is making his Ford’s directorial debut with “Laramie.” “For it to be done [at] a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln, somebody who fought so hard for the civil rights of others. . . . It just feels so important.”
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law against bias crimes directed at gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, was signed into law by President Obama in 2009. Since then, the Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed. Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage. In his second inaugural address, he cited the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York alongside Seneca Falls and Selma: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
“I think, legislatively, we are making progress,” said Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother. “We are socially, still a little behind that, but I think that’s to be expected.”
“We can’t think that just because of the steps we have made forward that it’s over now, because it isn’t,” Shepard said. “We don’t want people to forget. We aren’t there yet.”
On Oct. 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney, 22, and Russell Henderson, 21, drove Shepard to a deserted area on the edge of Laramie, where they beat him and left him. Eighteen hours passed before Shepard was found.
Five days later, Shepard died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo.
McKinney and Henderson are serving two life sentences apiece. They were eligible to receive the death penalty, but Shepard’s parents intervened.
Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, read a statement at McKinney’s trial: “Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.
“May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
During a recent rehearsal, Gardiner warned actor Paul Scanlan against being “too cocky for too long” as he reenacted McKinney’s confession. “I think it’s all a front,” Gardiner said. “I think it all comes from a place of just being so damn scared.”
“We have a responsibility to express their viewpoints in an honest way,” Gardiner said in a post-rehearsal interview. “Even the ones we don’t like.”
Scanlan, who plays both McKinney and Henderson, has to keep in mind that his character is “terrified,” Gardiner said. “I want to paint the ugliest picture of him that I can. But that . . . is not honest, and it’s also less interesting. It’s just going to create a cartoon. So we have to find what makes him human.”
Gardiner intentionally cast all local actors, faces that will be familiar to Washington audiences, including Mitchell Hebert, Kimberly Gilbert and Holly Twyford. He said he wants the play to “feel as relevant as possible, and I think a lot of that is in the casting and making it feel like it speaks to our community and is representative of our community.”
Judy Shepard said that she has seen “pieces” of “The Laramie Project” all over the country but that she didn’t feel ready to sit through an entire production until last summer, when the Tectonic Theater Project staged the play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
“What makes it so brilliant [is that] what you see onstage is a microcosm of every community in the world,” Shepard said. “Every person knows somebody who is represented onstage. Even yourself.”
Matthew Shepard’s murder was a watershed moment. That the phrase “anti-gay hate crimes” is part of the vernacular is due, in part, to his death. In 1998, Wyoming didn’t have a criminal statute regarding hate crimes, so McKinney and Russell weren’t charged with one.
Now, despite 15 years of progress and increased understanding, it’s unclear how much safer it is to be gay in the United States than it was when Shepard was alive. The most recent FBI statistics on hate crimes indicate that in 2011, rates of anti-gay violence increased about 2.6 percent nationally, from 1,470 to 1,508 incidents, even as the total number of hate crimes decreased. (Hate crimes numbers from last year will not be available until November.) Crimes against LGBT people accounted for almost 21 percent of all reported hate crimes that year. Given the problems with tracking hate crimes — most are not reported to police, and those that are won’t necessarily be categorized as hate crimes — the statistics probably understate the number of hate-driven assaults.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “homosexuals are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime.”
For Hassan Naveed, 27, the co-chair for Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence, Shepard’s “is definitely a name that is seared into mind.
“Even though it happened 15 years ago, we’re still talking about issues in our city where folks are being stabbed 40 times in Southeast because they’re transgender,” he said, referring to the attack in June on Bree Wallace, a 29-year-old transgender woman. Wallace, 29, was treated at Prince George’s Hospital Center and survived.
That’s far from the only high-profile anti-gay hate crime the Washington area has had since the beginning of last year. On March 12, 2012, a man’s jaw was shattered in three places in assaults committed by two groups who began their attacks by shouting homophobic slurs.
A transgendered woman in Northeast Washington was beaten unconscious the next night. In June 2012, a 16-year-old male was stabbed outside the Howard Theatre by assailants who thought him to be gay. Three months ago, six attacks in 10 day involving gay or transgendered victims were reported, two on the same day.
“In many cases, the LGBT community doesn’t have the social support” or political support to defend itself, Naveed said, and attackers exploit that vulnerability. “It’s like, if you hit an LGBT person, no one’s really going to care.”
Gardiner has “a very vivid memory of finding out about Matthew Shepard.
“I was 14. I was sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car. My mother was in front . . . and my twin brother, James, and I were fighting with each other. . . . She turned around to us, and she was crying.
“She was talking to both of us, but even as a 14-year-old, it was kind of clear she was talking to me. ‘I just want you to know, you can tell me anything and I’ll love you no matter what.’ And she turned back around. . . . I started listening to the radio, and they were talking about Matthew Shepard.”
That “was so defining to my coming out, both in a positive and negative way,” said Gardiner, who came out when he was 20. “Until I came out, I remembered what my mother said, and I remembered how that was tied to Matthew Shepard. On the negative side, being a 14-year-old and hearing about this violent attack that happened to a young gay man, it pushed you a little bit back in the closet, to see that kind of hatred.”
Earlier, he had talked about running into people, including some who have never heard of Shepard. That, he said, is “devastating to me.”
“It’s still important to tell this story,” he said. “For the 21-year-old who doesn’t know who Matthew Shepard is.”
Sept. 27-Oct. 27, 511 10th St. NW, www.fordstheatre.org, 202-347-4833.