Matthew Shepard.


“The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later”

Free

Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018

The Downeaster Theatre

1120 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Lansing

(517) 763-8045

www.thedowneastertheatre.com

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FRIDAY, Oct. 5 — A week from the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, the Downeaster Theatre is preparing its staged reading of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.”


Shepard, who on Oct. 6, 1998, was viciously beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming, shares the namesake of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in 2009, which extends hate crime protection to gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.


Downeaster Theatre performed the original “Laramie Project” in 2017. The play’s script comprises more than 200 separate interviews of Laramie citizens — along with transcripts from the trial and local news clips — resulting in a strictly firsthand narrative.


The upcoming staged reading is a raw take on the expanded edition, which returns to the original story with additional perspective.


“I remember back in 1998 when this happened,” said actress Laura Johnson. “To have lived this whole journey, from Matthew Shepard being murdered in 1998, to then being in the full-length production and now ‘Ten Years Later,’ it's really touching my heart. That's why it was so important for me to come back and do this.”


When it was first alleged that Shepard was targeted due to his sexual orientation, a firestorm of antigay activists, politicians and Laramie community members contended his death was in fact a drug deal gone wrong, or a bar fight taken too far.


Since the trial, prosecutor Cal Rerucha has told several news outlets that a meth-induced rage, not homophobia, was to blame for the actions of Shepard’s killers: Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Rerucha’s remarks still raise eyebrows, because Henderson and McKinney’s original defense hinged on their supposed inability to think and act clearly, due to unwanted sexual advances from Shepard.


Kathryn Willis, executive artistic director of Downeaster Theatre, said this reaction was the result of people being unable to come to terms with the underlying bigotry.


“People don't like to admit when they suck. Laramie the town didn't want to say, ‘Yes, we have people here who murdered someone for the sole reason that they were gay,’” Willis said. “They changed the narrative into being drug related and people would claim, ‘Oh, I know what really happened!’ Even though they weren't there.”


Johnson hopes the drug narrative can one day be put to rest.


“The mantra was that it needed to be recognized as a murder for someone being gay,” she said.


The staged reading tackles many dark issues — attendees should be prepared to explore a more lurid aspect of humanity. Still, Willis and Johnson believe “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” can be a positive source of inspiration.


“It's a dedication to Matthew Shepard. He was a real person; this is a true story. It's a very emotional story and there's going to be some really dark moments,” Johnson said. “But by the end, I think people will take it home and process it — hopefully affecting world change as a result.”