Matthew Shepard was just 21 in 1998 when two men lured him from a bar in Laramie, Wyo., intending to rob him. They then tied him to a fence, beat him, tortured him and left him for dead. It wasn’t a random crime. Shepard was killed because he was gay; one of his killers argued that Shepard had come on to him that night — a “gay panic” defense.
His killing became a turning point in the discussion of LGBT rights; hate crime legislation was proposed in multiple states and at the federal level (it failed in 1999 but was signed into law as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act by President Barack Obama in 2009), and Americans were forced to confront exactly what homophobia could look like. It could look like a young man hanging from a fence for 18 hours.
Hearing of the murder at the time, Matthew Gardiner, director of the Ford’s Theatre production of “The Laramie Project,” on through Oct. 27, was afraid.
“I was not openly gay at the time, so it had a very negative impact on me in the sense that it was terrifying to look at a young gay man and what could happen to him,” says Gardiner, 29. “I have an emotional attachment to this story.”
The play, which Denver’s Tectonic Theater Project premiered in 2000, follows various characters — some based on real people, some composite — as they come to terms with Shepard’s murder. (Shepard is not a character in the play.) The production is the third installment of Ford’s Lincoln Legacy Project and its run coincides with the 15th anniversary of the crime and of Shepard’s death a week later.
“Everybody thinks of ‘The Laramie Project’ as the story of Matthew Shepard, and it is,” Gardiner says. “But more than that, it’s the story of a community, American society and how they dealt with this horrible tragedy. Some people’s viewpoints changed, and others’ did not.”
Characters in the play whose views don’t change include Fred Phelps, real-life pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for picketing events with signs bearing anti-gay messages.
Mitchell Hebert, who plays Phelps and other characters, learned Phelps’ lines last, Gardiner says, “because it was hard [for him] to go home and memorize those words. My goal would be to paint them in the ugliest way possible. But that’s not truthful, that’s not honest, that’s not an interesting portrayal” of Phelps.
“Creating three-dimensional portraits of the people I like and only creating one-dimensional portraits of people I don’t like wouldn’t honor the play,” Gardiner says. “It’s up to the actors and me to find the reason that they’re human, not necessarily reasons to like them.”
The Lincoln Legacy Project, says Ford’s Theatre director Paul Tetreault, came out of a desire to better serve the theater’s mission of communicating the values of Abraham Lincoln. It started as a five-year project, with each fall production addressing a social-justice issue. (The inaugural show, “Parade,” dealt with anti-Semitism; 2012’s entry was “Fly!,” about the Tuskegee Airmen.)
“We thought, if we’re going to do these kinds of plays, we should do more than put on a play,” Tetreault says. “Let’s create a dialogue about the issues raised in these plays.” As part of that effort, most performances of “The Laramie Project” will be followed by 20-minute discussions; there is also a special “faith night” performance targeted toward religious groups and a candlelight vigil on Oct. 11 to commemorate Shepard’s death.
Ford’s is also considering going beyond the original five-year plan. “We need a play that deals with women’s issues. We need a play that deals with immigration issues. We still haven’t solved all of our race issues,” Tetreault says. “There’s no shortage of ‘isms’ we need to deal with. We don’t have just five problems.”
Beyond ‘Laramie’: ‘Not Alone: The Power of Response’
Part of the programming surrounding “The Laramie Project” is “Not Alone: The Power of Response,” a one-room exhibit at the theater’s Center for Education and Leadership, across the street from the theater itself. “Where Matthew Lay Dying (Laramie, Wyoming 2007)” (below) is a large-scale photograph by Jeff Sheng taken from what would have been Shepard’s point of view during the assault. Also on display are hundreds of letters received by Shepard’s family after his death, including official correspondence from President Bill Clinton, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Britain’s Archbishop of Canterbury. There are also letters from ordinary citizens: Some are scratched on Post-its, some are on formal stationery; some are full of compassion, some were written in anger. (One simply reads, “Hang the bastards that did it.”) Taken together, they present a vivid picture of a nation in mourning. Center for Education and Leadership, 514 10th St. NW; through Nov. 3, $5; 202-347-4833, fords.org. (Metro Center)
The Show Might Go On
A national historic site, Ford’s is closed with the federal government. Two free performances will go on Friday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at United Church of Christ, 945 G St. NW. If the shutdown ends in time, the play will resume as scheduled through Oct. 27 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW; regular tickets are $20-$33. For updates, go to fordstheatre.org.