“I looked in my rearview mirror to take one last look at the town”

When I signed up for Laramie, I had no idea just how much thought would be put into this play. I mean, I imagined there would be all of the usual things, but I was very overwhelmed by the amount of research that went into this. To me, Laramie was just a play. Yes, as I said, it was an important one to me, personally. But I never thought to go behind the scenes, to study its form, its genre. To go back, and study things referenced to in Laramie. What was at first overwhelm, soon became the greatest gift I could ever have received.

Soon, I would encounter, once more, Our Town, a play that similarly examines life in a small town. Next, I would read Execution of Justice, whose topic is referenced in Moment: Gay Panic (Harvey Milk and George Moscone’s murders). Lastly, I would read and see performed in full the play that inspired Jedidiah Schultz throughout Laramie, Angels in America.

But it didn’t stop there. We actually got to meet one of the original dramaturgs, Maude Mitchell, when she was here as a part of the Mabou Mines residency. And blogger, and Laramie resident at the time of Matt Shepard’s murder, “Jackrabbit” drove upwards of four or five hours just to see our production. Hell, Moisés Kaufman even complimented our trailer video online, which Jules so thoughtfully made available on a Laramie forum.

Working on Laramie brought me so much new perspective, especially as I studied it for another Theater Studies class as well. I want to share a piece (after the break) that I wrote for that class that sort of follows the expansion of my perspective on Laramie. I thank everyone involved for aiding me in this journey.

And of course, I’ll be cliché and end with Marge Murray’s quote. “Now you take care. I love you, honey.” 🙂


The following is a response I wrote for Race, Gender, and Performance with Nina Prieur, part of which is in response to a critique of Laramie by scholar Jill Dolan, excerpted from Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater.

The first thing I should say is that I’m too personally invested in the Laramie Project. Working on this production for so long, I feel like I have given so much of myself over into this play. And considering its role in my own realizing I was gay almost eight years ago, and how it has become an avenue for me to rediscover the theater, and the arts in general, as a means of self-expression and activism, Laramie is far more to me than just a play I have worked on for months.

I realize that I am too personally involved in this. My first inclination of this was when the company had an audience with Maude Mitchell. She was a part of the Tectonic Theater Project at the time of its interviews in Laramie, WY. Credited as a dramaturg, she later left the project due to creative differences. Maude, who had been visiting as a member of Mabou Mines’ residency at Duke, for the first time made me think critically about Laramie. Her insight came on the heels of the company’s exploration of related plays, including Execution of Justice, Our Town, and Angels in America, and documentary theater as a whole.

Mitchell walked a fine line that night, negotiating her own views of Laramie and what seemed like a self-imposed responsibility not to outright criticize Moisés Kaufman or our company for doing this production. She shed light on the limitations of documentary theater as a genre, mostly within the context of two parables she shared with us. The first story was that of some interviews she had with employees of a batter-woman’s shelter. Over her objections, said Mitchell, Kaufman cut these interviews that she thought were crucial to the telling of the town’s story. The second example she gave was the class issues that permeate Laramie, WY. Again, these claims arose from more interviews that had been cut from the final script. It was, in part, due to these that she left the project before its completion.

At first I wrote off Mitchell’s points as simply resentment of Kaufman for cutting her material. And indeed, she certainly came off as bitter with the whole thing. But as I thought more and more about her words in the following days, I began to understand her frustration with the project, and consequently had Laramie knocked down a peg. She shed light on an ugly truth about documentary theater that I wish was not present in Laramie. Kaufman, she alleges, went to Laramie, WY with the explicit intention that the incident be about gay bashing, in effect glossing over every other issue that Laramie has. As I sat through rehearsals I began to notice more and more that certain issues were hinted at in some of the characters’ dialogue, but never explored. And I can’t lie, I felt extremely angry. Angry at Kaufman for telling an incomplete story. Angry at Mitchell for revealing this ugly truth. Angry at myself for romanticizing Laramie as I had. And yet, my appreciation of the play never waned. If anything, it grew stronger because I understood it better.

And so, it is with the background that I approach Jill Dolan’s chapter about Laramie in Utopia in Performance. Again, I will point out that I too personally involved with this play, because my reaction to her critique was one of betrayal and anger, even rage. I found myself crying as I read her scathing analysis of Laramie. Reading this selection was Maude Mitchell all over again. She derides Tectonic’s effort as epitomizing the same elitist, condensing, patronizing attitude that the media took when it accosted the town in the aftermath of Matthew Sheppard’s beating.  As with Mitchell’s insight, I was disgusted with this revelation. I suppose that I am like Dolan’s characterization of the Laramie residents. She ridicules the residents for their overt disapproval of the homosexual lifestyle, as well as Kaufman for including these sentiments. And yes, while I am gay, and am indeed disgusted with Murdock Cooper’s line “If you step out of line, you’re asking for it,” I fully believe that in an effort to show as much truth as possible these views MUST be included. In spite of Mitchell’s assertion of Kaufman bias, I think Tectonic did “do [their] best to say it correct,” as Father Roger implored them to, BECAUSE they including these dissenting views. Like Dolan’s attack of the townspeople, I, too, cling to my beliefs about Laramie, even in spite of having been enlightened.

However, as with the citizens of Laramie, I have had these conversations that challenged my beliefs. The townspeople, even the one who disapprove of homosexuality or express ignorance, DID have dialogue. While dialogue alone does not translate to action or a changing of one’s views, it is an important and necessary first step. I am still as loyal to Laramie as ever, more so, even. But, I DO realize its limitations. I DO see where it fails. And while some towns people may still cling to their old beliefs, I think that they, too, have had the worlds uprooted by this incident. In many ways, I feel like Dolan’s criticism of Laramie and its citizen’s is itself a betray of a certain ignorance and condescension, especially in how she almost dismissed the remarkable change of heart of Jedidiah Schukltz or Detective Sergeant Rob DeBree.

2 thoughts on ““I looked in my rearview mirror to take one last look at the town”

  1. Manny,

    I think the journey with the play that you describe would actually please Dolan very much. Check out (if Nina hasn’t already directed you to this resource) Dolan’s Feminist Spectator Blog http://www.feministspectator.blogspot.com/ where you can read more of her critical perspective on plays in production. I like Jill a lot especially because, though it’s been a while since she’s done this, she was one of the few leading lights of the feminist performance theory world who actually put her ideas to the test in production as a director and a director of plays she had very critical/negative opinions about. Also she is an active theatergoer and an astute (if biting) critic. I think I’m not out of line in saying that she makes no bones about the perspective from which she reads performance (the name of the blog pretty much announces it), and she is not afraid to call out sacred cows of the theater world.

    I think Jill and Maude might have lots to chat about regarding Laramie, and I think both of them wish that the play might have taken a few more chances, had grappled with some of those difficult questions (of race, class, and gender) AND still have been popular and digestible by audiences. Dolan is rightfully suspicious of any narrative that touches on homosexuality that gains broad public approval because there’s going to be some serious compromise there to make us palatable to the majority. You don’t have to look any further than the evening news to see how much awfulness is still being espoused about the LGBT community (case in point, yesterday’s sound bite from Pat Robertson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=murKRfTfGQs).

    I came to Laramie perhaps in the exact opposite frame of mind than you did. I had a big chip on my shoulder. It wasn’t just because Jeff’s company, *the* queer company in the area, had been screwed out of the rights to produce the show in the area by Playmakers (under previous leadership/administration) but more because I had watched the national dialogue about gay people “change” in the wake of Matt’s death and it was a disconcerting change overall. Not that there weren’t genuine conversions (like those the play marks with characters like Rob DeBree and Jedadiah) but the idea that now the nation would openly grieve a dead gay boy (As long as he was dead. As long as he was a boy. As long as he was white. And pretty … you get the idea. ) and that such pity was going to be some kind of pathway to rights and acceptance … well, I thought that was “just crap” (to quote our friend Jonas Slonaker). I’m still pretty ticked that most of the “rights” I’m currently given are predicated on my suffering some kind of illness (my wife and child can visit me in the hospital) or crime (the prosecutor can seek a harsher penalty for my basher). But that’s not what I came here to say.

    What I love about making theater is that in the process of collaboration, all the impressions and ideas we hold about a text can (must) be challenged and renegotiated in the here and now with a very specific group of people and for ultimate dialogue with an audience. And, again, this leads me back to Dolan and her realization of production as a place (even for a play that she doesn’t particularly like, like Laramie) where there is always the possibility to see things in a different way, to recoup what you might have felt was a weakness or problem and to try and offer your perspective on that problem to your collaborators and the audience. And that new understanding of the piece doesn’t have to undermine the original love and value you had for the script when you first read/encountered it. It’s not just blogs that are “living documents” of theater. Our texts are as well. We never step in the same river twice with theater work. The words may not change but we do, the context does. And it is that shift, small or seismic, which brings us back to our initial feelings with, as you so eloquently mark in your response for Nina’s class, a new power, a new way of either reinvesting our relinquishing our experience but never denying or dismissing that experience.

    I hope to see you in class and/or on the boards again soon. Oh and just for summer reading/viewing fun : ) check out the work of Taylor Mac, particularly his play *And the Young Ladies of …” which he brought to Playmakers a couple of years ago (you can get some clips of it on YouTube). He’s an interesting mix of queer playwright/performer/musician and that work—particularly his negotiations with the story of masculinity handed down to him by the men in his family—is both deeply critical and yet utopic, angry yet utterly sweet. If you can’t find the script in full yourself, let me know.


  2. Manny,

    It was great working with you! I have never had such a positive experience with two such dedicated folks as you and Jeremy. I am really looking forward to having you in class next fall. Thanks for all your hard work and thanks for sharing your entry for Nina’s class as well. I thought it was thought provoking and well written. Here is wishing you all the best for a great summer and a spectacular senior year. I look forward to working again soon.

    xo Jeffrey

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