By Brian Bergen-Aurand
Wayne “Matt” Shepard was born 1 December 1976 and died 12 October 1998.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard–a white middle-class twenty-one year old university student–was robbed, beaten, and left tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming in the United States. His head and face injuries were so severe doctors reported they could not operate. Matthew Shepard died six days later. The story of his torture and murder reverberated across the United States and served as an important example for those who worked within education and larger contexts to counter bullying and anti-gay attitudes and behaviors. [Shepard was not the only person murdered in 1998 because of his sexual presentation, and there have been important essays written about why his narrative has had such an impact. Amy Tigner, for example, considers the importance of location–The American West–in the way we remember Matthew Shepard.]
Sixteen years later, The Laramie Project is coming to Singapore Repertory Theatre (25 – 26 July 2014), retelling the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder and its effects on the West prairie community to a South East Asian community contemplating its own complex relationship with anti-gay laws and regulations, the emergent effects of pink dollars, and changes in its own complex and contradictory lgbt community, especially around issues of “the closet” and “gay pride.”
The Laramie Project (along with The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later) is part of The Laramie Cycle, a production of the Tectonic Theater Project, who devoted over two years to researching events in Laramie. According to their website,
A month after the murder [of Matthew Shepard] the members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted interviews with the people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play The Laramie Project, which they later made into a movie for HBO. The piece has been seen by more than 30 million people around the [United States]. In 2008, the members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie, Wyoming to explore how the town had changed since the murder of Matthew Shepard. What they found defied their expectations. The result was a new play about how we construct our own history. This is the continuing story of an American town.
They claim, “THE LARAMIE PROJECT is one of the most performed plays in America today.”
What makes The Laramie Project an important consideration of the issues involved in this story of a community is precisely its refusal to totalize events and their ramifications. It avoids falling into simplistic tropes of representation, instead relying on the deployment of dialogic strategies to expose the conversation between the interviews, public opinions, media hype, various lgbt and civil rights rhetorics, and the very performativity of the theater personnel.
Writing in Theatre Journal in 2001, Debbie Thompson describes the play in these terms:
More Brechtian than realist theatre, The Laramie Project self-consciously reflects its creative processes and representational choices. The eight actors, playing themselves, other members of the project, and people in the Laramie and Fort Collins communities, relate going to Laramie a month after Shepard’s death to conduct initial interviews, and then returning several times for additional interviews and to observe the trials of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The actors self-deprecatingly present their preconceptions about the West before the project, including fears of being gay-bashed in Laramie. They also portray the many interviewees who jarred their preconceptions: Zubaida Ula, a Bangladeshi Muslim feminist; Romaine Patterson, the friend of Matthew Shepard who was transformed by the incident into an activist; Father Roger Schmidt, who urged tolerance; and Reggie Fluty, the deputy sheriff who, exposed to HIV when she cut Shepard down from the fence, went on a difficult AZT regime but never once regretted helping him.
What makes the play valuable on many levels, writes Thompson later in the piece, is its depiction of the many irreconcilable Western mentalities and their intersections with other ideas about the West and other localities.
There are many conversations related to bullying and lgbt issues ongoing in Singapore. Debates over the penal code and the role of section 377A are continuing. Arguments around Pink Dot–Singapore’s annual public “Freedom to Love” meeting in Hong Lim park–and its growing corporatization are developing. The relationship between educational institutions and questions of sexuality and sociality are evolving.
I am excited to see how The Laramie Project enters into these local conversations. Singapore is not Wyoming. Neither is it New York City–home of the Tectonic Theater Project. Perhaps, though, it is exactly such a dialogic approach to questions of gender, sexuality, and the public sphere as evoked by this theatre piece that will enter the conversation here in important ways because the setting is milieu is already one of living discussion.
Brian Bergen-Aurand teaches gender & sexuality and film studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is also a member of the organizing committee for the gender & sexuality studies minor at NTU and serves as the faculty advisor for Kaleidoscope—an NTU community promoting equality and addressing discrimination on issues such as Sexual Orientation, Gender, Class, and Race.