'Why did it happen here?!' is the haunting refrain
Show seen: Wednesday, May 14, at 7pm at Riverside Theatres Parramatta. Presented by Chalkdust Theatre Company. Directed by Jonathan Llewellyn.
“Why did it happen here?!” is the constant refrain from the townsfolk of Laramie, the old cowboy town in Wyoming. These days it’s an urbanised rural community, with fast-food chains, supermarkets, internet hubs . . . and scars.
The sleepy little city was awoken with a jolt when one of its young men was tortured and killed because he was gay. On October 6, 1998, uni student Matthew Shepard, just 21, barely five-foot-two, was beaten, tied to a fence, pistol-whipped and left to die by two men his own age. He was found after many hours and taken to a Colorado hospital but died of severe head injuries six days later.
The sleepy little city was awoken with a jolt.
The town was torn apart by outrage and disbelief. The media converged and national, and worldwide, attention was focused on the community which struggled to process what had happened.
There were songs, movies and endless media reports, both in-depth and in-shallow.
A New York Theatre group, Tectonic Theatre Project, founded and run by gay director Moises Kaufman (his 33 Variations was a Broadway triumph in 2009 for Jane Fonda), set itself the task of visiting Laramie and interviewing the residents over an extended period to find and document the real collective voice of the community.
The results are this stage production, which continues to be performed around the world and is now a high-school text.
Jonathan Llewellyn’s direction is insightful and he brings alive a text which is not easily staged, being essentially a collection of monologues, connected by theme and narrative but mostly delivered as individual recollections by the doctor, the Baptist preacher, the Mormon minister, the shopkeeper, and so on, and police interviews with the perpetrators and court statements by Matthew’s father.
There is a mix of viewpoints. Though most were aggrieved by the hate crime, some objected to Matthew being made “a poster boy for the perverted lifestyle”.
Both the text and the direction play down the emotion, letting the horror simply slip out between the lines, the more horrific for it.
All the actors are marvellous and loved by the audience, mostly high-school students. Jeremy Brennan (one of the Jersey Boys) is wonderful in multiple roles.
Oddly, one voice missing from the play is that of Matthew’s mum. Judy has since become very prominent as a gay-rights advocate and founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, matthewshepard.org. Perhaps, it was too raw for her at the time Kaufman was doing his research.
Here's Judy Shepard on Ellen (08.39):
Laramie was in shock for a long while and “Why here?” the desperate chorus. Clearly, however, many towns and cities have a gay-hate legacy, if you dig a little. There are too many Laramies.
One of the characters notes that, a year later, no anti-hate legislation had yet been framed, let alone passed. The arm of the law is as slow as it is long. Finally, the Matthew Shepard Act was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009 – 11 years and 12 days after Matthew died. He would have been 32.
But changing attitudes takes even longer than changing the law.
The Matthew Shepard Act was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009 – 11 years and 12 days after Matthew died. He would have been 32.
Footnote: When Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist gilded the lily on the (fictional) Brokeback mountaintop in the same state there were residents who objected to the film's “homosexual content”. Brokeback Mountain was shot largely in Canada – it was cheaper --– but when it was a huge success (eighth highest-grossing romantic drama since 1980) the Wyoming Office of Tourism was quick to own what it could, stating the film “captured the spirit of Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains”.
■ The Matthew Shepard Story (2000), with Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
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Review of Twists and Turns cabaret: Matthew Mitcham drops his dacks
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Nick Atkins for A Boy & A Bean: Jack, the giant killer
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns cabaret: Matthew – all singing, all talking, all dancing!
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Simon Burke for Mrs Warren’s Profession: A timeless take on the oldest profession
Ellen's mum, Betty DeGeneres on marriage equality: Not supporting gay marriage is bullying
Amanda Muggleton for Torch Song Trilogy: Amanda returns to the spotlight
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns book: He couldn't believe it would last – it didn't