Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Laramie Project

What happens to a small American town when something unforgivable rips it apart? And what happens to a close-knit community when they are vilified by the media? Ori Golan

At first, the passing cyclist thought the form tied to a buck-rail fence was a scarecrow. But when he stopped, he discovered a human being. It was the battered body of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. He was freezing cold and covered in blood. His skull had been smashed with the butt of a handgun. The policewoman who arrived at the scene found his hands so tied tightly to the fence that she couldn't get a knife in to release him. Five days later, Matthew Shepard died from his injuries.

Within a few days two Laramie residents, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, aged 20 and 21, were held in custody, charged with and later convicted of Shepard’s killing. The media went into overdrive. Hundreds of journalists besieged the town. Laramie was labeled a backward town; its inhabitants branded homophobic.

In November 1998, four weeks after the murder, Moisés Kaufman traveled with nine members of his company, The Tectonic Theater Project, to Laramie, Wyoming, to collect interviews that might become material for a play. They were there to explore how and why a hate crime like this one happened. Initially, the town folk were suspicious of them, but over the next 18 months, the actors talked to over 200 residents of the city about their relationship to Shepard, and the impact of his death. The result is The Laramie Project - an extraordinary 90 minutes of theatre.
The play is the essence of simplicity. Each actor plays multiple roles with the barest of costumes, while the actors make do with minimal props. A telephone conversation is acted out without a telephone; the deputy sheriff’s mother smokes a cigarette which is never lit. And it doesn’t detract from the drama.

This is theatre without dialogues, judgments or conclusions. It is a collage of quotes collected from residents of the small Wyoming town in the aftermath of the brutal murder, and pieced together by The Tectonic Project interviewers. Reenacting conversations, testimonies and court transcripts, it paints a picture of a community in turmoil. From the female sheriff's deputy who discovered Shepard lashed to the fence, to the shaken doctor who treated him; from the Laramie taxi driver who drove Matt to a gay bar to the bartender who saw him leave with the murderers, up to 60 Laramie residents share their words and recollections. One testimony follows another; one recollection coincides with yet another. This is drama with pace. The tension arises from the differences in perception, versions and beliefs.

A young woman, one of Shepard’s close school friends, remembers him fondly; the leader of a gay-bashing group disrupts Shepard's funeral yelling "God hates fags!" It is a blend of story-telling, theatrical journalism, and stocktaking that goes into the very heart of the American conscience. Residents are at first defensive: "This is not a place where things like this happen," they say. Later they realize Laramie is a place where things like this do happen, because it did.
What drove Moisés Kaufman, 39, founder and director of The Tectonic Theatre Project, to put this play together?

"There are moments in history", says Kaufman, "when a particular event brings the various ideologies and beliefs prevailing in a culture into sharp focus. "The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard was [an] event of this kind. In its immediate aftermath, the nation launched into a dialogue that brought to the surface how we think and talk about homosexuality, sexual politics, education, class, violence, privileges and rights, and the difference between tolerance and acceptance when a particular event brings the various ideologies and beliefs prevailing in a culture into sharp focus."

Brought up in Caracas, Venezuela, Kaufman was a yeshiva-trained Orthodox Jew with "peyos", at odds with his own homosexuality. The son of Eastern European Holocaust survivors, he moved to New York, in 1987, aged 23. "At the time, I couldn't be gay in Venezuela," he says. "It was too much of a macho Catholic country."

When the story of Shepard’s murder made the news, the image of the young man tied to a prairie fence, was viewed by many as an allegory to the Crucifixion. For Kaufman it conjured a very different vision: "I immediately thought of the electrified fences around concentration camps."

Forgiveness is a theme which the play approaches with caution. Shortly before McKinney's sentencing, Shepard’s father makes a hear-rending speech. "I would like nothing better than to see you die," he tells McKinney. "However, this is the time to begin the healing process, to show mercy to someone who refused to show mercy [...] I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives."

Upon her son’s death, Matthew's mother turns to the media to thank the thousands of well wishers. "Go home" she tells them, "give your kids a hug and don't let a day go by without telling them you love them." It is a profoundly moving testimony of a parent’s courage and dignity.
"The experience of working on The Laramie Project" says Kaufman, "has been one of great sadness, great beauty and, perhaps most importantly great revelations about our nation, about our ideas, about ourselves."

The Laramie Project has played to sold-out audiences in New York, Laramie and Denver. It was the second most perfomed play in America and has since been turned into an HBO film also directed by Kaufman. It is currently playing in London, UK at the Cochrane Theatre, until April 2003

No comments: