November 18, 2010 | by David J. Hoffman
Hope amidst hate

‘The Laramie Project’

Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2.

‘The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later”

Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7:30

Tickets: $35 (some available for $15 for those 30 and under)

Arena Stage

1101 6th Street, S.W.

202-488-3300

The company of Tectonic Theater Project's 'Laramie Project: 10 Years later' which will be performed this weekend at Arena's Mead Center. (Photo by Michael Lutch; courtesy of Arena)

This weekend Arena Stage provides an unprecedented opportunity to see the two “Laramie Project” plays — works inspired by the death of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard that have become contemporary theatrical staples — back to back.

The plays will be performed give times over three days. Together they present a poignant and stirring medley of emotions — shock, rage, grief, and even hope. And now the two plays are presented here, for the first time together anywhere, but only this weekend at the stunning new Mead Center for American Theater, in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater. It’s the starting point for a national tour by the Tectonic Theater Project, with both plays directed by Moises Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski, two of the five co-authors. For those interested in what being gay means in modern America, this is a great chance to catch these great works.

But why are they important? And what more can be said about the Shepard case, which received more national press attention than any other anti-gay hate crime? These works show there’s much more to the story, and it is one told with absorbing detail in a vivid reconstruction of how the people of Laramie responded in the aftermath of Shepard’s murder. This was the task tackled less than a month after Shepard’s death, when Kaufman and nine other members of the Tectonic, a New York City theatre company he had co-founded, arrived in Laramie, a city of 27,000 people, seeking to interview residents about what they knew and felt about what had happened.

At first, Kaufman says, “we had to put up with the people’s distrust of a New York theater company, and perhaps more damaging, the bruising caused by the media,” which had portrayed Laramie “as a town full of hillbillies, rednecks and cowboys,” so of course this hate crime could happen there.  After their initial visit, the group composed the first draft of what was called “The Laramie Project.”  But it took nearly a year before people really opened up to them.

They returned six more times to Wyoming for further interviews — more than 200 in all — until by the year 2000, it was ready for its premiere performance in Denver, next in New York City and, finally in 2002, in Laramie itself. It was later produced for television by HBO and the stage version has quickly become one of the most frequently produced plays by colleges and community groups in America.

Then, 10 years after Shepard’s death, they returned again to Laramie to produce an epilogue, based on follow-up interviews with residents featured in the original play. These interviews were adapted into the companion piece, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years later,” which debuted as a reading in nearly 150 theaters across the U.S. and internationally in October 2009, on the 11th anniversary of his death.

As the critic Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times in 2000 about the first play, “Kaufman has a remarkable gift for giving a compelling theatrical flow to journalistic and historical material.” In the playwright’s own words, “for me, there’s a great wealth of beauty and truth in reality, and how theatre can articulate this, that’s what I keep coming back to.”

Only eight actors play the more than 60 parts. The twin plays are constructed as a series of juxtaposed monologues and multiple viewpoints, featuring townspeople and Shepard’s friends as well as those who knew his assailants, and in the second play, Aaron McKinney himself, one of Shepard’s killers, is featured.

“Laramie is so small that there was one degree of separation between people,” Kaufman says.  ”So it was personal. People asked themselves, ‘What did I do to cause this murder?  What kind of community am I helping to create?”

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