Monday, October 29, 2018

Reliving the Past with The Laramie Project

Here's to hoping history stops repeating itself. 

Photo by Shannon TL Kearns

It's always amazing to me how imperfectly progress on social issues is made. Causes will fight for decades on an issue with little to no improvement - or maybe even sustain severe setbacks - only to jolt society light-years into the future with a single strategic win in the courts or passing of a radical piece of legislation.

The slow pace of moving towards a better world is important to remember in times like these, when so many of us feel like we are slipping further and further into the dark ages. It's not uncommon for things to get worse before they get better, and a great way to remind ourselves of that is to pay tribute to the epochal moments that catapulted us forward in the first place.

To make an imperfect parallel as an example of such a moment: if the Stonewall riots were the LGBTQIA movement's iteration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s march to Selma (thanks to Marsha Johnson - whose name we all should remember vividly), the murder of Matthew Shepard might have been its Emmett Till. The persecution of LGBTQIA people has always been a part of our history - nothing proved that like the lack of urgency surrounding treatment and research for AIDS victims - so there isn't really a visible reason that Shepard's death should have resonated so widely. Yet, often it takes the mundanity of violence to finally reveal just how awful human nature is and how strongly it must be corrected. Reports of Shepard's last hours of suffering after a brutal beating, documented after a biker found Shepard zip tied to a fence and fatally abused, shocked and horrified the nation and marked the beginning of a shift in attitudes that culminated in passing civil rights protections based on gender and sexual identity, legalizing same sex marriage, and an ongoing national feud over protections for transgender people across the whole political spectrum.

The thing that fascinates me most about this is: why Shepard? Why do we care so much about him, specifically? Why not one of the other many thousands of LGBTQIA folks who have been hounded, killed, or assaulted over decades? I'm not sure anyone can ever develop a clear answer for this. The Laramie Project, part one of The Laramie Cycle and now under performance from Uprising Theatre Company, is probably the best attempt to frame Shepard's death in a way we can understand. It's a clear-eyed look at the tragedy through a collection of journal entries, interviews, and observations made by a theatrical team shortly after Shepard's death caught national attention in 1998. It's a fascinating show that reminds me a little of Season 1 True Detective, a foray into the world of #truecrime that gives us a far more nuanced view of middle America and the issue of violence against LGBTQIA people than we often hear elsewhere in the media. There isn't really a star or even a main character; instead, by collecting a wide range of perspectives about who Matthew Shepard was and what was so different about Laramie, Wyoming (the city in which he was killed), we get a telescopic point of view that might illuminate just why we can never take current freedoms for granted.

One of the things I like about Uprising Theatre Company is they always include a fresh face on stage. This is truly an ensemble cast, and they weave through the various narratives swiftly and delicately. There are several brand new actors to #tctheater performing here - Bruce Manning, Juliette Aaslestad, and Michael Novak all do a great job. Directors Sarah Catcher and Ashley Hovell expertly blend these fresh faces with more experienced performers like Tia Tanzer, Jessica Thompson Passaro, Seth Matz and Baku Campbell. The result is a cast with a wide representation, mimicking Laramie's surprising diversity and keeping each transition between monologues fresh. I really enjoyed these performers, who approach this difficult subject with finesse and a total lack of artifice that gives it a heightened emotional impact.

This impact is facilitated by the nearly nonexistent production design, which is essentially a collection of black boxes, a screen, and a few strategically chose small props. Combined with the simple lighting design from Jake Otto; intermittent projection design from Daniel Mauleon; and basic costume pieces that are easily changed between characters right on stage, it allows us to pay attention to the developing narrative and strips away anything that might distract from the purpose of The Laramie Project: Matthew Shepard's life and legacy in changing hearts and minds.

There couldn't be a better time to pull this show off; after all, this year marks the 20th anniversary of Shepard's death (almost to the day), and it feels like we receive daily stories of rights and protections, so recently won and so hard fought for, being stripped away with ease. It's easy to take for granted that the rights claimed by previous generations are an immutable certainty, but the fact is that we are always at risk of sliding backwards. Without intentional, consistent advocacy to continue to push our boundaries further we will never achieve the fair world that Matthew Shepard (and so many others like him) truly deserved. Learning about the people of Laramie, Wyoming and Shepard's life is one of the best ways I can think of to understand where we need to go to change hearts and minds and protect our LGBTQIA family. I enjoyed viewing this important piece of work, and I can think of no better tribute to Matthew Shepard than to stop by Plymouth Congregational Church to see this show (or its followup partner, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later - you can see both as part of the full Laramie Cycle) before it closes on November 17. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

And don't forget: if you want to know what you can do to protect rights already hard-won, it's pretty simple to start: Make sure you vote on November 6. Learn more about where and how by clicking here

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