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?