I’m not a scientist. I can’t hold forth on asymmetrical systems or the intrinsic virtues/vices of two-state vector formalism. But I’m intrigued by quantum entanglement, and the idea that, without communicating in any way, particles with shared history affect one another across great distances. Possibly even time. That’s what was on my mind last weekend before, during, and after back-to-back viewings of The Laramie Project, and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at TheatreWorks and the Evergreen Theatre, respectively. And I wish I was a forward-thinking man of science, able to fire up a portable wormhole generator allowing future audiences to experience both shows consecutively. Unfortunately, Emerald Theatre Company’s production of The Laramie Project, nicely staged by director Den-Nickolas Smith closed last week. There are, however, several more opportunities to catch The New Moon Theatre Company’s fine production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, a sequel, of sorts, that looks at the Wyoming community’s struggle to reconsider past events and determine its own identity.
The Tectonic Theatre Project’s Laramie plays are something of a paradox. They are a progressive experiment, and a throwback to the bygone age of living newspapers. Using extensive primary source interviews they tell the story of Matthew Shepard, a slight, blond, 21-year-old, HIV positive gay man, who met with a violent end in the “live and let live” west, where, according to Willie Nelson, cowboys are frequently, secretly fond of each other.
On the night of October 6, 1998 Shepard visited the Fireside Lounge, a gay-friendly bar near Laramie, Wyoming. He ordered Heineken. There he met two other men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The three men eventually left the bar together. Shortly thereafter, McKinney and Henderson robbed Shepard’s wallet and shoes. They drove him to the outskirts of town where he was pistol-whipped, and tied to a fence. They doused him with gasoline, set him on fire, and left him to burn in the cold. The blood spatter was spread across 20 square yards.
Tectonic arrived in Laramie just as the media was descending. They spoke to anybody who’d sit for an interview and assembled a potent oral history about corrosive indifference, the power of community, and the need for hate crime legislation.
The ETC’s now-closed production of the original script was rough at the edges. But the narrative was vivid and clear and the whole experience was a frustrating reminder that good journalism, and good theater don’t cross paths often enough.
Ten years after Shepard’s death, Tectonic returned to the scene of the crime and reinterviewed many of the original subjects to create the appropriately-named The Laramie Project 10 Years Later. The epilogue, currently on stage at the Evergreen Theatre under the direction of Gene Elliot explores Matthew Shepard “Trutherism,” and Laramie’s need, as a community, to define itself as something other than the [“But we’re not really…”] homophobic place where Matthew Shepard died of horrific injuries.
In 2004 ABC’s 20/20 revisited the slaying. The long running news magazine suggested that both the media and the court had gotten Shepard’s murder all wrong. The controversial “Murder in Laramie” episode made a case that, while tragic, Matt Shepard’s death was just a robbery and drug binge gone bad. Like prosecutor Cal Rerucha told reporters in regard to Shepard’s killers,"the methamphetamine just fueled this point where there was no control. So, it was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. But it was a murder that was driven by drugs." Returning to primary sources, Ten Years Later plays out as a deliberate refutation of 20/20’s shaky revisionism. It shows, elegantly and awfully, that nothing changes the things informing the killer’s victim choice and over-the-top brutality.
Over the years Aaron McKinney, Shepard’s primary antagonist has told different, conflicting versions of the murder story. An interview Tectonic conducted with McKinney, reveals that even he can’t remember all the variations. He maintained that he chose his victim because he seemed gay and looked like he might have some money. In his Tectonic interview McKinney even took credit for things previously ascribed to his friend Russell Henderson while bragging about the quality of his Nazi-inspired prison tattoos. Chilling revelations, even when you already know the story.
When I say there’s not one standout in performance New Moon’s Ten Years Later, that’s about the highest praise I can give. It’s a show about teamwork, and this creative team works.The Laramie Projects are both exercises in minimalism in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In both Tectonic shows, relatively small companies bring an entire community to life. This time around the story, while focusing on Matthew Shepard and his killers is less about all that and more about persuasion, bias confirmation, and the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how these stories we tell ourselves about who we are duke it out until there’s only one story left standing.
I’m not a scientist. Try as I might, I don’t always get quantum mechanics, and I don’t know if there’s really any way for the present to change the past. But there are other kinds of entanglements. You don’t need a photon-splitter to alter the meaning of bygone events. You don’t even need reliable sources or reasonable extrapolation. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later forces us to confront the possibility that we’ve got that time-honored saying about history being written by the victor all wrong. Weighing 20/20’s market share against that of a PBS special debunking its claims, it cautions that victory may be the prize here, not the precondition.