The current Broadway hit musical, Kinky Boots, joyously tells us that you can "change the world if you change your mind." Well, that's good, because Moisés Kaufman's remarkable work, The Laramie Project, which tells the story of the impact on the town of Laramie (and the world), of the tragic torture and death of young, gay University of Wyoming college student, Matthew Shephard, can definitely change minds. Kaufman gathered a team of actors/researchers to travel to Laramie over the course of 18 months to interview residents, especially those with a connection to the events, such as university and hospital staff, local business owners, religious leaders and students. The play is drawn from these interviews and journal entries of the playwright, and the actors participating in the project.
First performed in 2000, and performed over 2,000 times since, Ford's Theatre has made this production of The Laramie Project an integral part of its Lincoln Legacy Project, begun in 2011 and described by the theatre as "a multi-year effort to create dialogue in our nation’s capital around the issues of tolerance, equality and acceptance. Each fall, through a series of cornerstone theatre productions, educational programs and special events, Ford’s takes a closer look at racial and religious intolerance, social injustice and civil rights in American history and contemporary society."
Director Matthew Gardiner (Associate Artistic Director at Arlington's Signature Theatre), has assembled a cast of talented actors, whose work has been seen in theaters around the DC area, and beyond. I've been fortunate to see them in productions at Woolly Mammoth, Keegan Theatre, Signature Theatre, Arena Stage, Studio Theatre and The Shakespeare Theatre, among others.
On this evening, the government shutdown had made it impossible for the theater to present the performance on stage at Ford's. In a show of compassion and spirit that Matthew Shephard surely would have appreciated, close neighbor Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, provided the use of their rehearsal space for the evening, and the cast and crew scrambled to make it happen. They first walked into the space at 4:00pm that afternoon, and the audience arrived at 7:30pm. They were without sets, most props and their multimedia elements. But it didn't matter; they had every ounce of the commitment, abundant talent and true passion that could take us on the journey to Laramie with them.
In fact, the intimacy of the small space worked well for this storytelling experience. The actors are speaking the words of real people, and it is vital for the audience to engage. The simple, spare setting, with only a desk and a few chairs, contributed to the urgency of the message, and helped me focus on what was really being said. That said, it is a testament to the skills of those involved, that the performance I saw seemed whole, and organic to the setting. I would be interested to see the full production as well, and hope that the restrictions on Ford's spaces will be lifted soon.
Each actor played several roles in the story, and I always find it remarkable to watch accomplished actors such as these transform in front of my eyes, with only the addition of a hat, a slight change in posture, a softening of the face. In particular, Kimberly Gilbert, who portrays Matthew's friend Romaine Patterson, just lit up the stage, with sparks of anger in her eyes, and the passionate commitment of a young woman who has lost her friend but found a calling in life as she fights back. Mitchell Hébert as Kaufman, and Matthew's academic advisor; and Craig Wallace as a host of characters from the limo driver who knew Matthew, to the presiding priest at Matthew's funeral, are both uniquely charismatic. Holly Twyford is also wrenching, and enormously appealing, as the young police officer who is the first law enforcement professional to arrive at the scene where Matthew was found. She had tried to keep Matthew alive, and been exposed to HIV in the process. Her story is the source of great pain, but also wry humor that reminds us of the many layers of human experience. But truly, it's difficult to single out actors in this uniformly wonderful cast. I enjoyed each of them tremendously.
The creative use of the limited resources by Gardiner and the cast was very satisfying as well. I especially liked that the constant shifting of the chairs and choreographed movement of the actors seemed to reflect the sense that our minds must also shift, re-form and face different directions in order to really understand our world.
Matthew's parents' response to those responsible for his death has been an example to the world of the power of answering hate with an attempt to find light in the darkness of suffering. As Dennis Shephard said, at the sentencing for one of the young men responsible for Matthew's murder:
Echoing this spirit, the play ends with the word hope. Hope not because everything turned out all right, with everyone's minds changed; but because the spontaneous outpouring of love and support for Matthew and his family showed us that where there's love, there's the chance for change. For this to happen, this play teaches us, we must tell our stories and truly listen to the stories of others.
Thanks to Ford's Theatre for highlighting the story of Matthew Shephard on this 15th anniversary of his death; and for reminding us that there is still work to be done.*
Director Matthew Gardiner talks about the development process in this video:
Ford's is hosting an exhibit, as well as other special events surrounding the 15th anniversary of Matthew's death. You can find complete information about all these activities on the theatre website. However, please note that the current government shutdown is impacting this schedule, and availability of the theatre facilities. Check the website before you go for the most updated information.
*There was also a production of The Laramie Project taking place at the University of Mississippi the same evening as I was sitting in the audience for this Ford's Theatre production. You may already have read about the cruel and disrespectful behavior of certain members of the "Ole Miss" audience, which underscores the ongoing importance of works such as this. Columnist and theater professional Howard Sherman has some commentary on his blog.