The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later premiere
I wasn't sure what to expect from last night's reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Seems like some of the organizers weren't totally sure either; About Face Theatre artistic director Bonnie Metzgar had to vamp on the Goodman's Owen stage for a good 15 minutes or more due to technical difficulties in New York. The event was the debut of the Tectonic Theater Project's new sequel to its groundbreaking docuplay about Laramie, Wyoming, in the months following the 1998 murder there of gay college student Matthew Shepard. Last year, as the tenth anniversary of the brutal crime approached, members of Tectonic decided to return to Laramie to see what had changed. Last night, on the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death, the new piece would be premiered near-simultaneously in more than 150 cities across the globe.
Not every partner production was on the exact schedule (my Twitter stream informed me that Trinity Rep's reading in Providence was finished by the time both New York and Chicago were at intermission), but many theaters were waiting to stream a live preshow video feed from Tectonic's reading at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. So many were trying to connect to the stream, apparently, that Lincoln Center's bandwidth was under strain—hence Metzgar's vamping, during which she invited About Face Youth Theatre member and Walter Payton College Prep student Scott Jaburek onstage to talk about what AFYT means to him. (The Chicago reading was a benefit for the Youth Theatre program, which was founded in direct response to Shepard's death.)
Once the video was working, we watched the Lincoln Center evening's host Glenn Close introduce Matthew's mother, Judy Shepard, who's become a tireless activist in the years since her son's death. Metzgar noted earlier that she'd been in D.C. on Sunday for the National Equality March (as had some others in the Chicago audience), where Judy had been a featured speaker; President Obama, in his speech to the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday evening, tried to score a point by mentioning his meeting with Judy Shepard in the Oval Office. Judy talked briefly about the reverential way people speak to her about The Laramie Project before introducing Moisés Kaufman and the writers of Ten Years Later, Leigh Fondakowski, Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and dramaturg Jimmy Maize, who explained the project's (re)genesis and the multi-city debut's inspiration by the Federal Theatre Project before turning it over to the local live productions.
Chicago's top-notch cast included Mary Beth Fisher, Patrick Andrews, Stephen Louis Grush, Patricia Kane, Keith Neagle, Dael Orlandersmith (the reading was staged on the set of her current solo show, Stoop Stories), Tanya Saracho, Chris Sullivan and Eddie Torres, with Youth Theatre members Matt Farabee and Jeremy Harris. Andrews and Kane both returned from About Face's all-star reading of the original Project last October, and picked up some of the same characters they tackled then.
Because it's marked as "an epilogue," I'd expected a relatively brief piece. Instead, Ten Years Later is a new full-length, two-act script, but it's far from bloated. In the first act, the Tectonic writers revisit some of the memorable personalities from the original, including officer Reggie Fluty, the first responder at the crime scene (she's now retired from the force) and Fireside Bar owner Matt Mickelson (who notes that he sold the bar, where Shepard was last seen with his killers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, after his sales dropped from $850,000 in 1998 to under $50,000 in ’99).
Updates are relayed about signposts both physical—the fence that Shepard was lashed to is gone—and metaphorical: the struggle for domestic partner benefits at the University of Wyoming, the introduction of a "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment in the Wyoming legislature (defeated at the behest of Republicans, the play happily reports). Much is rightly made of attempts by residents to downplay or dismiss the event's significance by labeling it a botched robbery or drug deal rather than a hate crime, in spite of the facts on record in the trial. According to the new play, this is largely attributable to a 2004 report by Elizabeth Vargas on ABC's 20/20 that attempted to spin the crime as a meth binge gone wrong, essentially implicating Matthew Shepard in his own murder. In Ten Years Later, the investigating officers say they were duped by 20/20's producers' claims that they had no agenda in revisiting the case. (The PBS series In the Life took issue with the 20/20 report in a segment titled "Hindsight is 20/20," downloadable here.)
The second act is structured around interviews with three subjects not directly represented in the original Project: Russell Henderson, Aaron McKinney and Judy Shepard. Tectonic's Belber (portrayed here by Chris Sullivan) interviews Henderson (Keith Neagle), who pled guilty and expresses remorse; Pierotti (Patrick Andrews) questions McKinney (Stephen Louis Grush), who claims remorse for, in his words, "all the wrong reasons": He's sorry for Matthew's parents and for his own father, but he says, "The night I did it, I did have hatred for homosexuals," and of Judy Shepard: "Still, she never shuts up about it, and it's been like ten years."
Of a number of affecting, alarming or inspiring moments in Ten Years Later, the one that really kicked me in the gut came shortly after, when Kaufman, portrayed here by Eddie Torres, asked Judy Shepard, played by Mary Beth Fisher, if she'd heard they had interviewed McKinney this time. Fisher gave Judy's words a wry, brittle twist as she replied something like, "Yes. I can't wait to hear what he has to say this time." I paraphrase because I was too gobsmacked to take notes as I realized that at approximately that very moment, the Lincoln Center attendees were watching an actor speak those words of Judy's while the real Judy Shepard sat among them, having just heard McKinney's heartless dismissal of her tenacity. Meanwhile Fisher-as-Judy went on to tell of a friend who'd recently asked her if it wasn't time to "let him go"—"Aren't you just keeping him alive?" And that, of course, is the point.
Tectonic conducted a live Q&A following the concurrent performances with questions submitted via SMS and Twitter. Tectonic continues to take questions to be eventually answered at community.laramieproject.org. You can submit queries via Twitter @LaramieQA or text to 40404, with the hashtag #laramie10.