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Laramie Revisited

10 years ago, a  bunch of New York theater folk went to Laramie, Wyoming to talk to the people about the death of Matthew Shepard.

“The Laramie Project,” Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project’s documentary drama, was the result of  200 interviews with Laramie residents in the year that followed the murder. In 1998, Matthew Shepard, the 97 pound, 21-year-old gay college student was beaten and tied to a buck-rail fence and left to die.

When I saw the original Berkeley Rep production, I wasn’t so sure, that the townspeople really fessed up to their true feelings. This was a small town disrupted by a nationally publicized murder, a town eager to white wash their newfound bogeyman image.

The play, which went on to become one of the most performed plays in America, and an HBO movie, was received very well. Maybe it led to a national conversation on homophobia.

But while the theater company visited Laramie some six times, it seemed to me the Laramie residents were holding back their real feelings from this group of (liberal, gay, Jewish) outsiders who came toting microphones.

Now, a decade later, Kaufman et al. have created The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,  about the murder’s long term effects on the town and society at large. The staged reading  will be performed simultaneously in more than 100 cities around the world  -- in all 50 states, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Hong Kong, and Spain on October 12 -- the eleventh anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.

Here in the Bay Area, theater goers can attend readings on either side of the Bay bridge:  at Berkeley Rep and the Magic Theater.

The “ten yeas later” epilogue includes new interviews with Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard and Mathew’s murderer Aaron McKinney, who’s serving dual life sentences, as well as follow-up interviews with many of the individuals from the original piece..

The original Laramie Project revealed some telling, troubling moments, even while Laramie’s residents seemed cautious and self-conscious. Intolerance slips out in phrases that tend to begin with” I’m not excusing [the murderers] actions but….”

One policeman’s wife  said she believed Shepard was “flaunting it.” And a  frank gay resident commented on his town’s party line, ‘live and let live” mantra: “Basically,” he tells us, “what it boils down to is, if I don’t tell you I’m a fag, you wont beat the crap out of me.”

The anniversary production considers the legacy of the Shepard murder: Did the murder have a lasting impact on that community? How has the town changed as a result of this event?

One hopes the answers reveal hope for the town and the country.