Laramie Redux

November 11, 2010

Laramie Redux :: 11 years later

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Contributor
Wednesday Nov 10, 2010

In 1998, director-playwright Moiss Kaufman dispatched members of his Tectonic Theater Project to visit Laramie, Wyoming to record the impact and implications of the murder of Matthew Shepard. The result of this testimony became The Laramie Project, his docudrama on the impact the crime had on the community.

This method of interviewing individuals to represent various points of view was groundbreaking in the way it explored the subject with breadth and depth. Nor did Kaufman and his team exploit the tragedy, rather they sought to understand how a community dealt with such a shocking crime.

Last year, Kauffman and members of the revisited Laramie for a reality check, resulting in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which premiered a year ago in nearly 150 cities throughout the country on the tenth anniversary of Shepards death. This year Kaufman has put both sections together, along with some additional material, in what he calls The Laramie Residency.

Changing the conversation

There were, though, some positive changes in Laramie, Kaufman said in a phone interview this week. "There is an AIDS walk now that goes through town and ends up in the cowboy bar and there is drag show that goes on to raise money. Thats change. There is the Shepard symposium for social justice every year and kids from all over the country come. The conversation has changed."

Out actor Kelli Simpkins, one of three of the original cast members in the new play, thought twice about revisiting Laramie. "Its an emotionally hard show to do. When we finished the original play in La Jolla and I thought that was the end. I also thought ten years later would feel historical and unnecessary. This play is still relevant and resonant to a frightening degree. I am more emotionally present with the work," she noted.

The play came to her at a pivotal time in her life and career. "It was a life changing moment for me. I was having a lot of questions about who I was. I had come out two years prior and was questioning if I could be out as a working actor and find work that was really meaningful to me. Then going to Laramie, being in the middle of the creative work for this and of course, the poetry of the words from the people of Laramie.

"We just finished performances in San Francisco," she said. "We were at the Jewish Community Center there and they were wonderful, and incredibly kind. Theyve done a lot of outreach to kids there. The woman who runs there programming are very interested in reaching out to the LGBTQ youth.

Story resonates

"Because this mostly a college town tour," she continued, "we are doing follow up teaching residencies. They are responding incredibly emotionally, particularly in light of to what has happened in the last couple of months with all of the teen suicides. These plays are resonating in ways that no one anticipating. So to us it has been incredibly meaningful to have this kind of work in front of the next generation because they are going to have the power to change things."

But an anecdote Simpkins recalled pointed out that as much as things change, they still stay the same.

"When we got to Wisconsin a woman where a shirt about Prop 8 that had the word gay on it, was gay bashed while we were there. Then we were hearing about another incident there of another woman being bashed a couple of years prior and nothing legally was done about it

Kaufman thinks that the plays represent "a moment of American history where we are right in the middle of talking about social justice and civil rights in a way that hasnt been that candid since the early 60s. Theres a national debate that is going on about these things. In Laramie, because this horrific thing happened, was forced to launch themselves into the heart of this dialogue."

Among the many community outreach events coinciding with the Philly engagement is a pre-show lecture on November 11, 2010 on the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act by Matt Nosanchuk, Senior Counselor to the Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, and representative for the Obama Administration on LGBT Issues. This event begins at 6:30 PM and is free for all ticket holders.