Healing and bad blood

By Lawrence Cosentino

LCC's 'Laramie Project: 10 Years Later' re-opens an old wound

It’s been 10 years since we’ve checked in on Laramie, Wyo. Strip malls are spreading. The Wal-Mart is now a Super Wal-Mart. There’s a Chili’s now. They’re drilling new oil and gas wells. It’s classic Everytown, USA stuff — right down to the untapped domestic reserves of bigotry and denial.

“The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,” starting this weekend at Lansing Community College, lifts the scab from an old wound and finds plenty of bad blood along with the healing.

“10 Years Later” is the sequel to “The Laramie Project,” the chronicle of 18-year-old Matthew Shepard’s brutal hate-crime murder in 1998.

“The events clearly changed us,” a Laramie resident says in the play. “How you measure that change, I’m not sure.”

It’s a more slippery task than the first “Laramie Project,” a mosaic of interviews and testimony from Shepard’s family and friends, teachers, cops, civic leaders and ordinary citizens, woven together and mounted as a play. (HBO made a star-studded film out of it in 2002.)

For “10 Years Later,” members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to revisit many of the same people and find out what has changed and what hasn’t. Unlike the first play, “10 Years Later” includes interviews with Shepard’s murderers, Aaron James McKinney and Russell Henderson. The sequel is best viewed after the original, but it stands alone and doesn’t assume any knowledge of the first play.

The “Laramie” plays eliminate smug distance by fusing drama and journalism, pushing audiences to take a harder look at themselves and their own towns. In contrast to the first play’s white-hot arc of tragedy, “10 Years Later” reflects, in painstaking detail, the wrenching ups and downs of gay rights stories happening all over America.

At first, the crew welcomes encouraging signs like the Matthew Shepard Symposium for Social Justice at Wyoming State University and drag queen bingo in Laramie.

“Yeah, that’s right, we had drag queens at the cowboy bar,” a citizen boasts.

They find that former Laramie Police Chief Dave O’Malley turned “180 degrees around” from being homophobic to touring the country with Shepard´s mother, Judy Shepard, to speak out about hate crimes.

But many Laramie citizens still deny the Shepard murder was homophobic. The interviewers are told ad nauseum that “every crime is a hate crime.” They meet young people who don’t know who Shepard was. At potlucks, in living rooms and on street corners, they chisel away at a citywide glacier of denial, hardened by a now-discredited “20/20” episode from 2004 that portrayed the murder as a drug deal gone wrong. The fence where Shepard was tied and beaten to death, a Golgotha-like icon in the gay rights movement, has been taken down and the area placed off limits to the public.

The “10 Years Later” team also finds deep resentment over the scrutiny the first play brought to their town. “Laramie isn’t a project, it’s a community,” reads the headline to an editorial in the daily newspaper, the Laramie Boomerang. To the visiting crew’s disgust, the editorial baldly questions the anti-gay motive for the murder.

Director Chad Badgero hopes the play will reach people of any age who are afraid to come out. He also hopes that some of Michigan’s legislators walk down the street from the Capitol to LCC’s Dart Auditorium.

“If Tectonic came here and did a story about same-sex marriage, what would we say in a public forum?” he asked. “I don’t know.”

Yvonne Siferd, Director of Victim Services at Equality Michigan, said she is grateful for “The Laramie Project” and its sequel.

“It’s a wonderful production, but it’s unfortunate that we are still having the same issues,” Siferd said. Michigan’s anti-gay-marriage Proposal 2, still enshrined in the state’s Constitution, is only a part of the picture.

Hate crimes against gays and lesbians have “increased dramatically over the past 10 years,” in Michigan and nationwide, Siferd said.

In 2002, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs coalition reported 24 LGBT hate crime victims in Michigan. In 2012, the coalition reported 104, including three murders and 12 assaults.

Siferd can’t tell how much of the spike in numbers comes from an increase in hate crimes and how much comes from people “feeling more comfortable reporting them now.”

“I would say it’s a little bit of both,” she said.

Siferd didn’t hazard a guess at the number of unreported hate crimes, but said it’s “probably pretty high.” Detective Michelle Bryant, the LGBT liaison officer with the Lansing Police Department, said there is little data on LGBT-related hate crimes in Lansing.

“We only track what is required by the state, and that is very minimal,” Bryant said. “I wouldn’t expect those stats to be very accurate, as often LGBT-related crimes are underreported.”

Bryant said she knows of “no single serious crime that has been committed solely because of one’s sexual orientation.”

Bryant, who is a lesbian, thinks it’s a hopeful sign that she was appointed the police department’s first LGBT liaison in 2011. “I think things are getting better,” she said. “There seems to be a wave sweeping over our country. Michigan is still very conservative, and lagging behind the progressiveness of other states, but positive changes are coming.”

But in “10 Years Later,” as in the main streets and legislatures of America, hope runs jarringly hot and cold. A gay student in the play talks about living in the “safe pocket” of the university, summing up the frustration of partial success.

“If I were in agriculture it would be different, or if I worked at the cement factory, it would be different,” he says. “But finding your safe pockets is what we do as gay people — not just here in Laramie, but wherever we are.”

Actor Joe Quick, a member of the “10 Years Later” cast, said the show “brought some realism” to his own life.

“I live in a sort of bubble,” Quick said. “When you’re that comfortable, and you have a lot of support from family and friends, I feel like it detaches me from that reality, that possibility of violence.” Quick recalled that when he came out as gay, he was surprised to see his mother crying. “I just never want anyone to hurt you,” she told him.

“I hadn’t even thought about that being a possibility,” he said. He’s not sure whether he’ll invite his mother to the play.

Saturday, Badgero reassembled most of his original Peppermint Creek cast from 10 years ago — including local theater legends Addiann Hinds and Bill Helder — for a moving staged reading of the original “Laramie Project.”

In a discussion following the reading, civil rights activist and journalist Todd Heywood reminded the group of some dark local history. On June 27, 1996, Lansing State Journal sports writer Bob Gross was brutally murdered after making a pass at a man in a bar. That same year, the Lansing City Council passed a human rights ordinance, but it was voted down in a divisive election.

“Back in ’96, when we lost that battle, it tore this community apart,” Heywood said. “It was terrifying to be an openly gay person walking the streets of this city. There are still moments, where I, as a gay man, still have concerns about being out.”

Frank Vaca, of LCC"s Gay-Straight Alliance, said he’s more open about being gay in Lansing than in his home town of Potterville, which reminds him a bit of Laramie. (Don’t they read City Pulse in Potterville? “I don’t believe they do,” Vaca said.) An encounter last October with anti-gay bathroom graffiti at LCC and the occasional “faggot” directed his way makes it hard for Vaca to let down his guard completely.

Updates on top of updates have become a part of the vocabulary of “Laramie.” In “10 Years Later,” Judy Shepard laments that despite 10 years of advocacy for hate crime bills, she doesn’t feel she’s accomplished much besides telling her son’s story. However, between the interview and the play’s publication, so much changed that extra narration was added to update the audience on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and other developments.

Badgero, who specializes in “issue” plays, said he’s hustling to track an unprecedented convergence of drama with the 24-hour news feed.

“The whole reason we’re doing the event is to address the issue, but it’s being addressed faster than we can even get to it,” he said. “And that’s just what we want.”

‘The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later’
LCC Performing Arts Dept.
Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Capitol Ave.
March 15-17, 22-23
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 17