Several giant names of stage and screen joined a company of dedicated actors to perform their most famous work: The Laramie Project—the story of how a small town in Wyoming reacted to the murder of Matthew Shepard 20 years ago next month.
Samira Wiley, Billy Porter, Asia Kate Dillon, Mary Louise Parker, Olympian Adam Rippon, and Randy Rainbow were among just a few of the famous faces to take part in Monday night’s sold-out benefit reading at New York’s John Jay College, titled Laramie: A Legacy.
The play tells not just the story of the crime, but also how the writers and actors traveled from Manhattan to Laramie to interview townspeople for the purposes of creating the play.
Wiley shone in her brilliant performance as Shepard’s lesbian classmate and friend, Romaine Patterson. Porter channeled enormous emotion as he played the dual key roles of a Catholic priest and the emergency room doctor who treated both Shepard and one of his killers. Several straight characters reflected on what they called “the gay lifestyle,” including a young man played by Dillon, the non-binary breakout star of Billions.
“The Laramie Project is a great example of what theatre can do in terms of teaching us about ourselves and enabling us not only as actors in a piece but audience members watching that piece,” Dillon told NewNowNext. “It enables us all to go on a journey towards learning more about our own ability to be more compassionate more empathetic and more human.”
The biggest surprise of the night came in the final act, when Matthew Shepard’s father walked onto the stage of the theater that, not coincidentally, is located in a college dedicated to criminal justice. There were few dry eyes as Dennis Shepard read from the victim’s impact statement he delivered 19 years ago at the sentencing of one of his son’s killers, Aaron McKinney.
Shepard spoke plainly about his son, and how he very much wanted to see McKinney die.
“You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
At the conclusion, Tectonic Theater Project founder and artistic director Moisés Kaufman thanked the audience and cast, and addressed the current political climate, which he said makes telling the story of Shepard’s murder even more critical. “With this madman we have as President, this conversation has to continue.”
“We’ve got to mourn,” Porter told NewNowNext. “We’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to show up and continue the fight as awful and frustrating as it is.”
Organizers say funds raised from Monday night’s reading exceeded $100,000 to benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Tectonic Theater Project.