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The passion of Matthew Shepard 

Click for larger image • Actor Julie Oliver, left, speaks with "The Laramie Project" director Ian Finley, center, and actor James Anderson during a break in rehearsal at Burning Coal Theatre.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Click for larger image • Actor Julie Oliver, left, speaks with "The Laramie Project" director Ian Finley, center, and actor James Anderson during a break in rehearsal at Burning Coal Theatre.

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later
Burning Coal Theatre @ Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School
Oct. 12, 8 p.m.

Eleven years ago, playwright Moisés Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie, Wyo., shortly after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. After researching trial transcripts and documents and conducting more than 200 interviews with the town's inhabitants over the following year and a half, they incorporated these artifacts with their own firsthand reporting into a rare fusion of social science, documentary journalism and theater.

The result, The Laramie Project, became a theatrical and cultural phenomenon in its own right. Since its premiere, The Laramie Project has been one of the most performed plays in America. Local productions have included a 2001 staging at Playmakers Rep, a version at Durham Tech in 2004 and one in 2006 at N.C. State. Between them, a 2005 high school staging at Durham School of the Arts was picketed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church (the one led by the odious "Rev." Fred Phelps)—and subsequently given a special award in that year's Indies Art Awards (see "Valor Award: DSA's The Laramie Project").

But if human events ever turned into history through a slow, deliberate process, they do not now. Not in an era when an entire industry that seems devoted to spin now wrings all events for two distinct, politically palatable truths—one for the left wing, the other for the right—once per news cycle, not once per decade. Since Shepard's death in 1998 and the 2000 premiere of The Laramie Project (and, for that matter, the 2002 appearance of the subsequent HBO Films screen adaptation), the meaning—and even the basic facts—of his death have undergone what Ian Finley, education director for Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre Company, terms a "tug-of-war." What began as rumors and alleged "insider information" erupted in a 2004 ABC News 20/20 story that, if proven true, would significantly change the meaning of Shepard's murder.

"That was one of the things that started Kaufman thinking, 'Wait a minute. Maybe we should revisit this as well,' because it's an ongoing narrative that is morphing in some unexpected ways," Finley said in an interview last week.

As a result, five members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie in June 2008. They reinterviewed a number of the people they'd met 10 years before and spoke with people they hadn't the first time—including murderer Aaron McKinney, in his only authorized interview since his conviction. Their goal, posted on the company's Web site,, was to see "how Laramie has changed: politically, socially, religiously, educationally."

From these conversations and new research, the company proposed to produce an article for submission to the country's major newspapers and what it termed "a small video presentation" for its Web site.

The company would also be producing an epilogue to the original play.

In promotional material, Tectonic calls Laramie Ten Years Later: An Epilogue "a new play about how we construct our own history" and "the continuing story of an American town."

This Monday night, Oct. 12—the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death— that new work will give fresh meaning to the term "world premiere," with more than 140 simultaneous, one-night-only productions occurring throughout the U.S. and Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Hong Kong and Australia. (Winston-Salem's Paper Lantern Theater is the only other North Carolina company participating.)

The audiences at most of those stagings, including the Raleigh premiere at Burning Coal, will participate in an interactive, Web-based simulcast with the New York premiere at Lincoln Center.

At 8 p.m., film and stage actor Glenn Close will host a 30-minute pre-show segment that will set up the evening, featuring Matthew's mother, activist Judy Shepard. After the local performances conclude, the evening will close with an hour-long 10 p.m. streaming Web cast from Lincoln Center, where the New York company will take questions and observations—posed via Twitter—from all participating productions.

"The play is so much about community," Finley notes, "that the Tectonic Theater Project wanted to use technology to create community in the premiere as well."

In another community-building aspect to the project, Tectonic requested that all companies either stage the work free of charge or as a benefit for a local philanthropy. All proceeds from the Raleigh production will benefit the Equality North Carolina Foundation, which works for equal-rights and justice issues for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens in this state.

The local production features an all-star cast, including Quinn Hawkesworth and Ira David Wood III. In a reversal of roles, Finley will direct, and Burning Coal's artistic director, Jerome Davis, will appear onstage.

Both talked with the Independent last week about some of the more unusual elements of this project—including signing on to it sight unseen. "They really didn't know what the script was going to be at the time," Davis recalls about the commitment process in June of this year. "They were still out there in Wyoming. I don't think they'd finished the interviews. They really didn't know what the shape of the play would be like, what characters would be in it or how long it would be. But I, as I am wont to do, leapt before looking, and here we are."

Finley finds the central question of the epilogue is, "How do we create the story that defines our communities? One of the processes is by revision. There are facts, and there are identities, and when the two are in conflict with one another, either we choose to revise our identity or we revise the facts.

"In Epilogue, we see that tug-of-war between who we say we are and who the facts then show us to be."

With only a handful of tickets left at press time, company officials were considering adding a second show Monday afternoon to accommodate demand. Contact them at 834-4001.

Mother/ SON
Carolina Theatre
Oct. 10, 8 p.m.

By now, most aspects of that gay rite of passage, coming out, have been widely explored in the arts. But when actor/ playwright Jeffrey Solomon realized that his coming out of the closet in New York had resulted in his mother going into a closet of her own back home—as the mother of a gay child—he knew he had a story to tell. The result is Mother/ SON, the semi-autobiographical one-person show Solomon brings to the Carolina Theatre this Saturday. We spoke with him in New York last week.

"The journey that the parent goes through when a child comes out can be just as intense," he observed. After growing up in a small Connecticut town, Solomon went to New York and came out in a pretty supportive environment.

"But my mother was left behind," he recalled, "in a very conservative, homophobic place. I don't think I really recognized how hard that was for her, that she had her own coming-out journey, until I undertook writing this play. But what's couched as a coming-out story is really a very universal tale about love and acceptance on a grander scale. Ultimately it's about becoming friends as an adult with your parents."

Before the show that night, PFLAG sponsors a free workshop with Solomon on creating a more inclusive community, Saturday afternoon at 3:30 at the theater. For info, call 560-3030.


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