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RTP’s The Laramie Project Is A Moving Reminder Of How Far We Still Need To Go

The production, which commemorates the 20th anniversary of Shepard's murder, is a powerful reminder of what's at stake for the entire LGBTQ community.

Sarah Kerndt | October 5, 2018

This past week, Richmond Triangle Players (RTP) opened it’s production of The Laramie Project. The show recounts the heartbreaking story of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was found beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die in the middle of a field in Laramie, Wyoming. This hate crime would shake the nation to its core and spark pivotal conversations regarding hate crimes against the LGBTQ community in the United States.

While Shepard’s story has encouraged and created monumental change in public policy and awareness regarding hate crimes, RTP’s show, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s death, serves as a painful reminder that we are not where we need to be as a nation. Written by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the docudrama follows the story after the death of Matthew Shepard, from the discovery of his body to the conviction of the perpetrators. The narrative is fueled by journal entries, news reports, and more than two-hundred interviews conducted with the people of Laramie.

Members of Tectonic, a New York based theater company, traveled to Laramie several times throughout the investigation to conduct the interviews. They used the results to create a two and a half hour show that completely engulfs the audience in the experience of being in a small Wyoming town amidst the madness of the investigation.

Before Matthew Shepard’s murder, hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals were rarely discussed in public platforms. In fact, it wasn’t until 1990 that President George H.W. Bush signed the Hate Crime Statistic Act, requiring the Attorney General to collect data on crimes committed because of the victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, into law. Again, that’s merely data collection. It took until 2009 for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extended the protection of the existing federal hate crimes law to include those who are victimized because of their sexual orientation, gender or disability, to be signed into law.

While many found this time as a cause for celebration, and it certainly was, the time it took to create such a law reflects how this country responds to the demand for protections of LGBTQ individuals. Now twenty years after Matthew Shepard’s murder, it is apparent we still have along way to go. According to the FBI’s 2016 Hate Crimes Statistics, 17.7% of reported hate crimes were motivated by bias toward sexual orientation, making shows like The Laramie Project more important than ever to shed light on the reality of this subject matter. “I want people to leave, ruminating about where we are in our country and how much more work we need to get done,” said Director Lucian Restivo.

The play is about Matthew Shepard, but it could really be about anyone, of any race, class, sexual orientation, or gender, and that’s what the show wants viewers to understand. Upon entry to the theater, you’ll notice large scale paintings of the perpetrators surrounding you; this was an intentional choice by Restivo, who said, “I surrounded the theater with these paintings, to encompass the audience, to make them feel like they could be Matthew Shepard. As morbid and horrible as that sounds, but it’s so true.”

The story of Matthew Shepard is painful but powerful. The imagery of him tied to a fence and being mistaken for a scarecrow by the biker who found him is branded in the minds of those who lived through that time. However, if you do not know the story, RTP’s production of The Laramie Project is the best possible way to truly understand it. It will both allow for reflection regarding how far we have come, and ignite a desire to keep progressing with more positive change in the future.

The Laramie Project can be seen at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre, located at 1300 Altamont Ave in Scott’s Addition (right by the rainbow crosswalk!), through Friday, October 19. Purchase tickets at rtriangle.org.