In his introduction to The Laramie Project, playwright-turned-social-anthropologist Moisés Kaufman writes, "There are moments in history when a particular event brings the various ideologies and beliefs prevailing in a culture into sharp focus. At these junctures the event becomes a lightning rod of sorts, attracting and distilling the essence of these philosophies and convictions. By paying careful attention in moments like this to peoples' words one is able to hear the way these prevailing ideas affect not only individual lives but also the culture at large."
Kaufman, along with a group of writers and actors, visited Laramie, Wyoming, shortly after the vicious murder and robbery of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man whose horrible death was mourned by the entire nation. Shepard had been picked up by two straight Laramie men claiming to be gay. He was driven out to a remote location, then tied to a fence and beaten. His wallet was stolen as were his shoes. According to his murderers, Shepard's last garbled words were a plea for mercy. He received none.
The Laramie Project, a theatrical event that calls to mind the "living newspapers" which flourished during the early part of the 20th century, is a compiled script using found texts as well as the transcripts of over 200 interviews with Laramie citizens. It is a profound documentary and a brilliant example of how effectively live performance can function as a historical document as well as a politically motivated call to action.
While it's certainly inappropriate to call The Laramie Project an entertainment, it is, after a tragic fashion, most entertaining. It's almost always true that tragedies are funnier than comedies and the reason for this is simple: Horror generates a genuine need for laughter. The project's writing team was, it appears, tuned into this need as they lovingly present even the least savory of their unvarnished character studies, taking great care not to let too much personal opinion get in the way. The show allows the actors to morph before our eyes into dozens of characters. In this sense it has the same appeal as Greater Tuna or Parallel Lives, but unlike these lighter diversions, The Laramie Project has guts. It clearly shows how the seemingly tolerant "Don't ask, don't tell/Live and let live" philosophy is as dangerous as it is deceptive. While those who subscribe to such principles may seem to say, "Hey, it's your life to live," the underlying message is "You don't tell me you're gay and I won't beat you up."
Director Bo List has assembled what can only be dubbed a dream cast. Featuring the talents of Mary Buchignani, Steven Burk, Michael Gravois, Ann Marie Hall, Jonathon Lamer, Brent Lowder, Laurie Cook McIntosh, and Sarah Robinson, the show's program reads like a who's who of Memphis' best ensemble players. While there are no "lead characters" in the traditional sense, Lamer stands out from the pack as a tough-talking limo driver with some keen insights into human nature. Laurie Cook McIntosh, a perennially underrated powerhouse, is equally memorable as a young, liberated Muslim whose bubble-headed "it's like/you know" speech patterns mask a deep understanding of the ignorance that fuels our nation's hate-culture.
The show's most moving moments occur during the trial of Shepard's murderers. One particular passage is worth quoting in its entirety as it speaks directly to the heart of a nation seeking revenge in the name of justice. Matthew Shepard's father addressed his son's murderer Aaron James McKinney, explaining to him in great detail why he would not ask for the death penalty. This is what he said:
"[My wife] Judy has been quoted as being against the death penalty. It has been stated that Matt was against the death penalty. Both of these statements are wrong. Matt believed there were crimes and incidents that justified the death penalty. I, too, believe in the death penalty. I would like nothing more than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, the Fourth of July remember Matt isn't. Every time you wake up in your prison cell remember you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. You robbed me of something very precious and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it."
Shepard's speech can hardly be seen as a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is the epitome of strength and it should serve as both an inspiration and a model for true justice as America continues to confront its own demons, as well as acts of external terrorism.
The Laramie Project is at Circuit Playhouse through October 21st.