“The Laramie Project” 20 Years Later: Why Is It Still Important Now?

"In looking at our past, we can figure out how we got to this present and how we can be a part of a change for the future."

My journey with The Laramie Project began in November of 2016, four years after I became the founder and artistic director of The Wandering Theater Company. I remember Tuesday the 8th like it was yesterday, the energy in NYC that morning was glorious. There was an excitement and eagerness as everyone was heading to the polls, feeling sure we were about to be a part of a historic event yet again: electing our nation’s first female president.

It was important to me to watch the results that evening with others, to be united with people from my community for this monumental moment. That evening, I met with one of my company members and we went to a local bar to watch the results come in. Our excitement turned to anxiety, then shock and despair. Once it became clear that Donald Trump had won the electoral vote, I felt hopeless, numb, and scared, fearing for my nation and the direction it was heading.

My first thought was: How do I, as a human and an artist, respond to this? How does the company respond? This question lingered in my head for days afterward.

Six days after the election, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across a post by an old college friend. It was a photo of police and an ambulance surrounding the body of a man. My friend had witnessed a hate crime: An African-American man had been beaten by a man who was shouting “Trump!” Bystanders, including my friend, chased the perpetrator in an effort to apprehend him, but he escaped. When the ambulance arrived, my friend was told to back away, as the injured man had stopped breathing. I don’t know if this man lived.

This event happened at 7:30pm on Essex Street in Manhattan, only minutes away from the Stonewall Inn. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that this was happening in Manhattan and if this is what is happening in our big liberal cities, what is happening in rural America? This made me think immediately of Laramie, Wyoming.

I remembered Laramie and I remembered Matt Shepard. I was in high school when he was kidnaped, beaten, tortured, and left to die, tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, in October of 1998, 20 years ago. His horrific hate crime shook the whole country and I remember thinking this could have happened here, in my town.

Stephen Shadrach/The Wandering Theatre Company

I attended Catholic High School in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and during that time, anti-LGBT bullying was prevalent in my school. Before Matt’s beating, I had a theater friend confide to me that he was being harassed and ridiculed in school for being gay (He hadn’t fully come out yet). It took such a toll on him that he even contemplated suicide. Thankfully, he didn’t.

I know that hate has always existed and bigotry has always been present in this country. Over the past two decades, it seemed to be getting better, each generation becoming more accepting than the one before. What is frightening is that when this brutal hate crime happened in 1998 it shocked the nation, it shined a light on hate and the world responded with love. Now it seems when a hate crime occurs, it a challenge to engage, never mind mobilize, different communities. During Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, he ignited a spark of hatred across the nation, making violence and injustice acceptable. Since Donald Trump’s ascendency, hate crimes are on the rise, and a spike in all kinds of hate-related violence and incidents have been documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects.

Rob DeBree, who was a detective from Laramie and investigated the Shepard murder, says it best when discussing this fear: “This is America. You don’t have the right to feel that fear.” It’s a tragedy that in 2018 there are so many Americans living in fear; The LGBT community, Muslim Americans, African Americans, immigrants, women, the disabled, and so many others.

It became clear to me that the answer to my question of How do I, as a human respond to this? Was to produce The Laramie Project and bring it to Washington, D.C. during the first year of Trump’s Presidency.

Stephen Shadrach/The Wandering Theatre Company

In July of 2017, The Wandering Theatre Company brought our production of The Laramie Project to our nation’s capital and won the Theater Mania award for Best Physical Theater at the Capital Fringe Festival. Our production of The Laramie Project was different than how it is usually performed. Most notably, we’ve incorporated a non-speaking physical character of Matt Shepard, who is sometimes spirit and sometimes memory. For so many in the theater, the murder of Matt Shepard is not something they recall because they were children when Matt’s murder happened. His on-stage presence makes his life less abstract: He was a son, brother, friend, student, and gay man.

After seeing the impact made with audiences in D.C., we brought The Laramie Project to New York City in November 2017 and held talk-back sessions after performances to engage our patrons in dialogue. The response was overwhelming, it was clear that this piece of theatre is needed now more than ever. It was also evident that we are not finished examining this piece of history and what hatred/fear has done to this small community. In looking at our past, we can figure out how we got to this present and how we can be a part of a change for the future.

Stephen Shadrach/The Wandering Theatre Company

It is with great honor that I invite you to see humanity in the wake of a tragedy and witness how our community has changed 10 years after Matthew Shepard’s death in The Laramie Project Cycle. The Cycle includes both The Laramie Project and its sequel, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

Our hope is that you join us, engage in dialogue about what we can all do to respond to hate, resist and answer that question for yourself: How do I respond to this?

Find ticket information here.

Natalie Villamonte Zito is the founder and artistic director of the Wandering Theatre Company.
@WanderingTheatr