I love making theater. The process guarantees that no matter how many times I’ve read, heard, or watched a play I will always be struck by a character, a scene, or a single line in a wholly new way. It’s a feeling similar to what Naomi expressed Tuesday night — even though she’s been a performer in a previous production of Laramie, this time she’s noticing different things, wanting to emphasize different ideas to the audience of this production of that same play.
Tuesday, watching the clips from our various media sources I was struck by a line that appears very early in the 95 minute movie version of Laramie that Kaufman made for HBO. (FYI, the play’s running time clocks in at about 2 hours and 30 minutes; in that time difference between play and film we can see the power of editing, condensing, rearranging a “true” story.) The line that stopped me in my tracks appears in the film’s opening “chapter,” which draws most of its material from Moments #1-12 of the play script. It is uttered by the Baptist Minister, played by Michael Emerson, who is best known to devotees of LOST as the duplicitous Ben Linus. Before that series, though, he made a particular name for himself playing Oscar Wilde in what I would argue is Moises Kaufman’s first “moment” organized play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1996).
The minister stands before his congregation, a similar performance as suggested by the script, and extols what he knows to be true because the Bible tells him so. Scientific experts say the earth 5-6 billion years old. The Bible says it is 6 thousand years old. What to believe? His response: The word is either sufficient or it is not.
Now I’m working outside my theological comfort zone, so you’ll have to bear with me. I think the minister might assert that it should be spelled Word, as not just any “word” but the Word, from God’s lips. I remember with piercing clarity a reading from the book of John that I read for my college’s Christmas candlelight services. I was given this passage particularly because as an actor I knew where to put the emphasis so that the complex idea might be better understood. I’ll only quote a part of it, here, for brevity’s sake:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
I stray into the Bible because I think belief in the word motivates those who make theater in a similar way that it motivates devoutly religious people. The biggest difference is the word’s origin. For the congregants of the minister’s church it is God’s Word, for the members of Tectonic it is Laramie’s word(s), stories of/from a multi-faceted community. The idea of taking issue with God’s Word would be unfathomable for the minister’s flock. There is only one way to see, one path to follow. For Tectonic, collecting and presenting many (contradictory?) voices offers the audience multiple perspectives, many paths to follow. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
Within the context of an evangelical religious community, that phrase asserts there is no word save God’s Word (conveyed through the Bible). Within the context of a theater making community like Tectonic, the words that are important are those spoken by everyday individuals. In that context, the phrase is actually a provocation. Tectonic’s mission, articulated by Moises Kaufman, is to explore “times when the ideas, beliefs, and ideologies that are the pillars of a certain culture at a certain time … surface around a specific event [because] when that happens the event itself operates as a lightening rod that allows us to see clearly, for a brief time, what ideas that society is made of.” For Tectonic, ideas, beliefs and ideologies emerge in conversation, our words illuminate the very structures upon which our communities are built. It is only by collecting, organizing, performing those words do we begin to see where the ideas are rooted and, possibly, how they might be changed. The word is either sufficient or it is not. Laramie presents citizens’ in conversation with each other and with outsiders, trying to come to grips with what has happened. It also argues (subtly) that the intervention of the theater company in this event/moment as a positive catalyst for change if not within Laramie proper, then certainly within the communities that stage the play and recognize themselves in the stories told.
I have mentioned in another post about how differently Laramie treats the courtroom as compared to Execution of Justice. In Execution, because the jury verdict was so disproportionate to the crime and the mitigation (the “Twinkie defense”) seemed a blatant smokescreen to avoid the larger conversation about the role homophobia played in the crime, the play argues that the legal ruling flies in the face of our commonly held notions of justice. The play’s trial of the trial cannot change the legal outcome of the case; however, it provides a space in which grievances can be addressed and asks that its audience scrutinize any further trials to make sure justice is served inside the courtroom the next time. The word is either sufficient or it is not. If it isn’t, as in the Dan White trial, then we find other words that are sufficient.
In Laramie the courtroom verdict seems appropriate. While the media coverage talks about the case as a “hate crime,” it is important to remember that it was the federal kidnapping charge that prompted prosecutors to seek the death penalty. There was no state or federal hate crime statute at the time that would have produced a capital charge. Even now, Wyoming does not have a state hate crimes law; the federal law (named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. both who died within 4 months of each other in crimes motivated by bias) was not passed and signed into law until October 28, 2009. Nevertheless, for Tectonic, the courtroom produces a verdict that answers (for whatever legal reason) the nature of the crime and it is Dennis Shepard who is given the space to pronounce mercy on the convicted killers of his son.
What we can see from the 20/20 episode is the flip side of Laramie‘s engagement with the Matthew Shepard case. It’s a question that motivates the Ten Years After epilogue to Laramie: has the play unfairly represented not only the events but the people of the town it chronicles? In Act 1 of Laramie, Jedadiah says that Laramie has become a place defined by a crime, like “Waco. Or Jasper.” (Jasper, TX is where James Byrd Jr. was killed.) In Ten Years Later we hear citizens complain that Laramie is now a place defined by a play, The Laramie Project. The desire to introduce another perspective on the “story” pulses through the 20/20 episode, fully facilitated by informants like Cal Rerucha, Kristin Davis, Aaron McKinney, and Russell Henderson. Ironically, whereas Tectonic originally cast itself as an outside force that could, along with the citizens, examine the community that produced the events of October 6/7, 1998 in positive ways it is now presented as promoting a monolithic voice of that same community, one that overrides the “real” voices of dissent. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
In their 20/20 interviews, Russell and Aaron offer themselves as victims acting under (bad) advice of legal counsel, which forced them to present the circumstances of the crime as tainted by homophobia when that was not true. Their punishments, cast in this light, are presented as overly harsh and other witnesses seem to have been denied their chance to speak, to tell about other circumstances which might have changed the outcome of the case. In this scenario, Laramie appears the dominant narrative against which other victims of the crime must work in order to be heard.
So we’re back to the paradox of documentary performance: how can a company challenge the dominant narrative surrounding an event without reasserting that its version of the truth is now unassailable? While Peter Weiss argues that politically active documentary theater has no obligation to tell the side of a story that represents the status quo, the conflict over The Laramie Project‘s version of the story, one that supports such a status quo force as a trial with a “right” verdict, illustrates the fine line between challenge and conformity.
It is difficult in the case of Laramie, a town in a state where there is still no hate crime legislation, in a country where individual states have passed discriminatory constitutional amendments that deny LGBTQ citizens equal rights (here is a link to one in the works for North Carolina described by its promoters) and a federal government whose own legislation (the Defense of Marriage Act) supports this discrimination. While it is impossible to discount the desire to see greater nuances in this case, there is still a dominant narrative about silence, fear, homophobia and violence that must be challenged. In Laramie. At Duke. In the US. Even if we see our historical time as one where there is some movement towards safety and equality for LGBTQ citizens, The Laramie Project is still one of the most successful set of stories to provoke self-reflection, social action, and greater tolerance if not actual acceptance. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
So what’s to be done? And I’m really interested in hearing ideas here because I’ve been struggling with this conundrum for the past 10+ years of studying, making, and writing about documentary media and performance. One idea I’ve advocated is to make multiple documentary pieces about the same event instead of just one. In my documentary courses, students explore one event chronicled by a documentary play and by a documentary film to notice the power of perspective and the divergence (and convergence) of source material as well as the distinction of medium that influences the way a story is told. Another idea would be for documentary companies/filmmakers to revisit the site(s) of previous work with a fresh group of collaborators and a willingness to make a wholly new piece of theater that can challenge, in productive ways, new, dissenting voices that now make up a community. I’m not sure Ten Years Later does this although it seems motivated by such an impulse. Other suggestions? Does our particular awareness about the paradox at the heart of documentary theater change or influence the choices we make as we rehearse this play?
This week we turn our attention to a slightly different chronology of texts relevant to The Laramie Project: those offered by the mass media and film.
We will begin with the Matthew Shepard footage (1996) from Tim Kirkland’s Dear Jesse (1998) documentary that I embedded in a previous post.
Then we’ll move to an October 12, 1998 edition of ABC Nightly News with Charlie Gibson anchoring the report about Matthew Shepard’s death. ABC News is the only one of the big-four networks to still have publicly accessible footage of its original reporting on the Shepard case. FYI, you have to sit through a 30-second commercial before the full clip is shown.
After ABC News, we’ll see more footage from 1998, this time captured by the camera of documentary filmmaker Beverly Seckinger and her film Laramie: Inside Out. While the film was not released until 2004, I believe its chronologically accurate to place it nearer to the event itself since the footage was collected during a similar block of time in 1998 and 1999.
Clips from the 2002 Moises Kaufman adapted and directed The Laramie Project HBO movie is next on our list of screenings. I’ve focused my selections on moments that allow us to see another versions of the Laramie physical landscape, a slightly different kind of media cacophony (revised because Kaufman is now working within a filmic vs. theatrical medium), and characters that we have/will see in “real life”. The following is a rather grainy trailer one can find on YouTube that gives a sense of the HBO film:
From Kaufman’s filmic retelling to what Kaufman describes as revisionist history, we’ll watch most of the 2004 ABC News “documentary” produced for their 20/20 program, “The Matthew Shepard Story: Secrets from a Murder.” Host Elizabeth Vargas offers evidence “uncovered by an ABC News investigation,” evidence conveniently corroborated on camera by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men convicted of consecutive life sentences for Shepard’s murder. The convicted killers and some new (and old) informants from Laramie assert that the crime was the result of their participation in the town’s pervasive but heretofore unspoken methamphetamine “drug culture.” While Vargas is careful not to denigrate the profound and positive impact stories about Shepard’s death, particularly The Laramie Project, have had on dialogue regarding homophobia and hate crimes in the US, she insists that ABC’s “new information” about Shepard’s possible drug use, depression over his HIV+ status, and the rumored bisexuality of one of his killers, should be included in the narrative as it adds “fact” to the “legend” of what happened that night in October 1998.
The final program on the evening’s slate will be a segment from the June 2005 “Setting the Record Straight” episode of the LGBT program In The Life, which debunks the claims of 20/20. From this re-revision of the case, we’ll jump into discussing the 49-page audience guide for The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Company’s own return to Laramie and the company’s stake in confirming and reasserting that they actually did follow Father Roger’s admonition to “say it correct.”
For this post, I thought I’d leave you with a chance to see their trailer for the Ten Years Later script. It features new video footage from interviews with Jedadiah Schultz, Dave O’Malley, Rebecca Hilliker, and Reggie Fluty.
After Tuesday’s class, Jacob reminded me that I have not yet discussed specific North Carolina connections to Matthew Shepard. In an article, “The Thrill of Living Dangerously,” written for the March 1999 issue of Out magazine, the author briefly discusses Matthew’s time in North Carolina, time spent working at a video store and seeing a therapist for treatment of an eating disorder. The larger concern of the Out story is how Matthew’s struggles with depression, addiction, and risky sexual behavior have been absented from the larger national discussion about his death. This absence, while frustrating for someone who wants the “whole” picture, is not surprising considering the way details about the sexuality and/or sexual activity of hate crime victims find their way into public narratives about the crime in ways that lessen the brutality or homophobic origins of the violence. Victims of rape and sex workers who report abuse or violence by clients also suffer this kind of sexualization, a legal strategy and cultural narrative that asserts a victim’s behavior is directly related to their culpability for crimes perpetrated against them. We see a bit of this narrative emerge when Aaron McKinney employs a “gay panic” defense at his trial but again in the 20/20 “documentary” we will watch on February 8 when an entire backstory of drug addiction and risky sex is offered as mitigating factors in the circumstances of Matthew’s death.
In her memoir, The World Was Watching: Living in the Light of Matthew Shepard, Romaine Patterson sheds some light upon the darker sides of Matthew’s life, his alienation from generous but largely absent parents (he attended a boarding high school in Switzerland when his father’s job as an oil safety engineer took the rest of the family to Saudi Arabia). His trauma after being raped and robbed while on a senior class trip in Morocco. If anyone in the cast/crew wants to read Romaine’s book, I have the library’s copy.
But the passing reference in Out was the only link between Matthew and North Carolina until documentary filmmaker and native North Carolinian Tim Kirkman reviewed old footage for his Emmy nominated film Dear Jesse. Dear Jesse is a first-person “letter” to North Carolina’s powerful US Senator Jesse Helms, whose thirty-year Senate career was marked by his position as one of the primary architects of and engines that drove the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and 1990s. Helms’ insistence that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality and that the entire AIDS epidemic could be attributed to gay men even as scientific studies refuted that claim, was just one of his most lasting legacies as a public figure. Helms’ cause and rhetorical strategy continues, one recent example being the remarks made on January 11, 2011 by NC Representative Larry Brown who argued that government subsidies for HIV and AIDS treatment and drugs should be given to those who contract the disease “through no fault of their own” (such as children born with HIV) but that funding should not be provided for those “living perverted lifestyles.”
Dear Jesse was released in the summer of 1998, a few months before Matthew’s murder. This clip, posted to YouTube in 2009 by blogger Joshalot, is of one of Kirkman’s 1996 man-on-the-street interviews at Catawba Collect (Salisbury, NC) with a then unknown Matthew Shepard standing with his self-identified boyfriend. I have only been able to find a secondary source that touches briefly on the origin of YouTube post. What I can say is that this clip is not from the original release of Dear Jesse. It is a section of footage that Kirkman originally cut but then found and included as an epilogue to the version of Dear Jesse that ran as part of the “Reel Life” documentary series for Cinemax and was eventually released on DVD in 2006. As you will hear from his voiceover, in this epilogue Kirkman recontextualizes what was once a random interview with two college students into a realization that this is perhaps the only video footage of Matthew Shepard outside of that taken by his family and friends, one way the larger public might see Matthew in life as a counter balance to how we have been forced to imagine him (only) in death.
What is also interesting to note is that in this clip Matthew seems politically aware about LGBT causes. This is a slightly different portrait of his activism from the one the play implies: that his political consciousness about LGBT issues emerged at the same time as he arrived in Laramie for school. It seems important to remember that while Matthew was a new student at the University of Wyoming, he was actually 21 years old (just about 1 month shy of his 22 birthday) and had taken classes at two other colleges (Catawba College and Casper College) before 1998.