‘The Laramie Project’ shines light on assault, murder of Matthew Shepard

“The Laramie Project,” put on by the University of Indianapolis Theatre Department, is based on a hate crime committed by two men in Laramie, Wis. on Oct. 7, 1998. The men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted a gay man named Matthew Shepard that night and took him to a remote location. They tied him to a fence and severely assaulted him with the butt of a pistol, according to matthewsplace.com/matthews-story/.

The two men left Shepard there to die. After nearly 18 hours, a bicyclist found him the next day. The website said Shepard was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where he died on October 12 at 12:53 a.m., five days after he was assaulted.

Senior theatre major Justess Hurst portrays Romaine Patterson, who organized the group “Angel Action”  to counter protests at Matthew Shepard’s funeral. Photo contributed by Jim Ream
Senior theatre major Justess Hurst portrays Romaine Patterson, who organized the group “Angel Action” to counter protests at Matthew Shepard’s funeral. Photo contributed by Jim Ream

One month after Shepard’s murder, The Tectonic Theater Project took a group of 10 company members to Laramie to interview about 200 people “in the town torn apart by the crime,” according to tectonictheaterproject.org.

From those interviews, the company created a play called “The Laramie Project.”

Assistant Professor of Theatre and Director of “The Laramie Project” James Leagre said he was inspired to have UIndy perform the play because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“It was around this time last year when the whole Religious Freedom Act [occurred],” Leagre said. “As soon as I saw that—this is a play that I’ve been wanting to direct for a long time—It was a no-brainer…. This is probably one of the few plays that was picked for a very specific reason in terms of the content and trying to open some people’s eyes.”

For the UIndy production of “The Laramie Project,” the set consists of a few platforms and chairs, with the audience sitting directly on stage. There were 73 characters split between 14 actors, with each actor playing about seven or eight characters each.

Each character is represented by a different piece of clothing. The play opens with the lines “We went to Laramie. We interviewed people. This is what I heard.”

Sophomore theatre major Wes Harl  (center) interrogates one of the murderers of Matthew Shepard. Photo contributed by Jim Ream
Sophomore theatre major Wes Harl (center) interrogates one of the murderers of Matthew Shepard. Photo contributed by Jim Ream

Sophomore nursing major Kayden Drake said she enjoyed the way one actor was introducing all of the characters.

“I like that the reporter was going around and saying who each person was and how they changed so fast,” Drake said. “I just like the switching of the roles and the different interviews and the different perspectives of what happened.”

Leagre said that the play is bittersweet because it helps create awareness of hate crimes, yet hate crimes are still prevalent in Indiana.

“One of the things that I discovered through doing this play and some of my research—I was not aware that Indiana is still only one of four states that still does not have a hate crime bill,” Leagre said. “Every other state in the country has it except Indiana and I think two or three other states . . . I’m excited about hopefully creating a proactive movement where hopefully there are going to be a lot of things that people have not thought about. And this will prompt them to think a little bit more . . . This becomes more than just a play, a performance. ”

“The Laramie Project” will resume performances from April 28 to 30. All performances will be held in Ransburg Auditorium, beginning at 8 p.m.