September 30, 2009 | Narrative
notes on matthew shepard and the laramie project
article by Lauren Neal
My personal best long jump, recorded during my freshman year of high school, was seventeen feet, six inches—enough to win a bid to the state championship. I loved running and jumping: moving because I was moving me.
I eventually eschewed track for theatre; I was tired of skittering my then-skinny twig legs around the world just to land in the same spot. I wanted to go somewhere, but I was precocious and self-important—ignorant enough to figure I’d seen everything I would ever need to see. I wanted to get deep. I decided that, in the theatre, I could dig.
I shoveled my way through Shakespeare and Beckett; even Sondheim became a muddy little underground friend. I became an expert at speaking in other people’s voices, at running in other people’s (costume-shop) shoes. I studied character intention, historicization, contextualization; but, I didn’t know myself—I didn’t know what Lauren would say if she ever opened her mouth, what excuse she’d give for jogging the last one hundred meters of a sprint, what distraction she’d cite for slipping out of first place. I only moved when someone else was moving me.
Then, someone killed Matthew Shepard because he was gay. Yet, like I always did, I found solace in the fact that I could still run away in some other person’s shoes. For years, Shepard’s death was not enough to move me in the right direction. If I had been Matthew, I would have escaped in someone else’s (heterosexual) shoes. I didn’t speak honestly, my mouth wouldn’t dare mouth true words. But at least I had shoes; at least I was alive, I thought; at least I could still move.
I became complacent. I began to walk without fear of the consequences of catching a shoelace in a cement crack. I stopped looking down. I walked straight, I talked straight, I was straight: there was no reason, I thought, to walk with my head down. I took the ground for granted. The ground was—granted—immobile.
My footing inevitably fell from under me. I fell in love with the wrong person, the wrong sex. I fell to the ground, through the ground, to the other side, the wrong end up. I slipped into a world void of gravity’s righting, normative function. The earth quaked and destroyed all faith I had in my ability to run away from anything.
At the same time, Moisés Kaufman halted his theatre company’s performances of other playwrights’ work in favor of writing the company’s own, so that he could deal with the issue of text, with the matter of words. His theatre company is Tectonic. Tectonic, notes the group’s website, refers “to the art and science of structure… how things are made, and how they might be made differently.” Tectonic Theater Company wrote The Laramie Project to document the life of a small Wyoming town in the residuum of an unforgivable murder. Upon witnessing this play in performance, I, for all my self-hating, stubborn denial, was remade.
Tectonic’s epochal work epitomizes the potentially exponential reach of one solitary, potent story. This story will reach you, if you let it, if you understand that one event, like the event of Matthew’s murder, is much more than a methodical sequence of happenings. The event of his cold-blooded killing frosted the surface of the earth with Matthew’s face. His face is the face of The Laramie Project and its interviewees, from 1998 through 2009. His face is the face of each student who lived with the play’s words during weeks of rehearsals. His face is the face of every audience member—fifty million and counting—who has experienced the invitation to enter into dialogue with the play. His face is the face of every violent act that remains faceless because its true face wasn’t quite pretty and light enough to grace the nightly news.
When I see Matthew’s face, I see the face of every single one of my friends: they are queer, they are people of color, they are broke(n). The list of differences for which others can and have justified raising violence, hatred, and eyebrows in opposition to their humanity approaches infinity; This is a list scorched with, what I imagine to be, hellishly reductive hate crime headlines. When Matthew Shepard crosses my mind I consider writer Greg Pierotti’s words during my recent interview with members of Tectonic Theater Project on behalf of my work for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. I contemplate the “peak emotional experience” that was Matthew’s murder. I wonder why Matthew’s sympathizers “can’t have the peak experience continuously,” because I do. I wonder where they get the “discipline [and] structure to help support and leverage the more emotional experience,” because it is something I lack.
When I think of Matthew, the butterflies in my stomach make a date with the cat captor of my tongue, because—from my perch in the middle of the debate regarding LGBTQ equality—I swear I feel our terrestrial landscape grumble defiantly at the God Of How Things Ought To Be. I am moved. I move.
I find the strength to break an evil spell—the warmth and resolve to force blood into my fingertips and nausea from my esophagus—when I consider the reach of Matthew’s face: its splintered shards etching bloody question marks into the numb flesh of hateful, hypothermic hands. How have we, as humans, become so indifferent? I start running when I think of how many times I will be willing to break my back, to step over and suture every crack on this planet until I am certain that this—Matthew’s shattered face, tilted, unhinged Earth scaling the hoops of Saturn’s wedded rings, historically indifferent shadows obscuring the visibility of victims not ‘worthy’ of this Son’s light—will never happen again.
Moisés Kaufman wanted to know if theatre can participate in (inter)national dialogue. Yes, it can. And thanks to Matthew Shepard, and to the theatre, and to an earthquake, so can I. I know who I am. I am a formerly athletic, pointedly theatrical, biracial little gay girl who thinks all these words don’t mean a thing if they get frozen, forever, on the page. I’ve finally got my words, and it’s time to move. The race is on. The race is toward, never away. The race starts today.
On October 12th, the eleventh anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, over one hundred performances of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later will simultaneously transpire across the globe. If you would like to involve yourself (in any capacity) with Brown University’s undergraduate reading of the piece, or if you would like to answer a call for written works related to any issue/theme addressed in the piece above (to be incorporated into the staged reading), please contact Lauren Neal at firstname.lastname@example.org.