By George Basler
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die outside Laramie, Wyoming.
The murder put a spotlight on homophobia and helped galvanize the gay rights movement. Thirty-eight days after Shepard’s death, playwright Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to do more than 200 interviews with those directly associated with the case and with regular residents of the city.
The result was The Laramie Project, a play that won critical attention at the time and has gone on to be widely produced across the country.
On Friday (Oct. 12), a cast of 26 actors, ranging in age from 14 to 80, will mark the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death by performing the play for one performance only at United Presbyterian Church in Binghamton.
The staging is a collaboration between two local groups: Studio 271 Productions, a performance and visual arts company headed by local actress and director Kate Murray, and the Identity Youth Center, a center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people at 206 State St., Binghamton.
The past two decades have seen many changes. Federal hate crime legislation is now on the books; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality; polls show 67 percent of Americans support same sex marriages while 63 percent say gay couples should be allowed to adopt children.
At the same time, Kaufman noted, in a recent interview with the Fort Collins Coloradoan, “I think we’re in the middle of a moment in America where we are having … a war with ourselves about some of these ideas, not only (about) homosexuality, but also about gender identity and religion and education. We seem to be divided right in the middle. There is no middle ground right now.”
The fact that anti-gay sentiments still exists makes The Laramie Project relevant to today’s audiences, said Rob Egan, director of the Identity Youth Center, who had the idea to stage the play after seeing a production at Union-Endicott High School last year. “Even though it’s 20 years later, it’s a conversation we need to keep having,” he said.
Egan approached Murray with his idea. Murray agreed to direct the play and recruited actors she knows from other productions. Auditions were held for young people to fill out other roles. Actors have come from the Southern Tier AIDS Program, the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier, the Binghamton Pride Coalition, the Unitarian Universalist Church, Southern Tier Actors Read and high schools in Broome County.
The Laramie Project has 68 roles, so the 26 cast members will play multiple roles. The production is a staged reading so actors will work off scripts.
“It’s a taxing role, but an important role,” said Trevor Terry, 16, a Binghamton High School student who will play the role of Shepard’s ghost.
“It’s such a good commentary, and an important commentary, on how people view gay people,” he added.
Despite progress, more work needs to be done, Egan said. He pointed to statistics that show LGBTQ young people have higher rates of substance abuse and higher rates of suicide than the general population.
“The message of The Laramie Project is that it (a murder motivated by hatred) could happen anywhere. Laramie could be any small town,” Egan said.
All proceeds from the production will go to the Identity Youth Center, which offers support for LGBTQ youth but welcomes all young people regardless of their sexual identity, orientation or gender identity.
IF YOU GO: The Laramie Project will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Oct. 12) at United Presbyterian Church, 42 Chenango St., Binghamton. A $10 donation is suggested, but no one will be turned away. Tickets are available at the door.