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and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed.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.”
‘I am going to grant you life’
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.