By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
October 6 will be the 20th anniversary of the kidnapping, torture and beating of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard, a student at the nearby University of Wyoming, was targeted as a victim for aggression and violence because he was outwardly gay. Discovered tied to a remote fence the next morning, Shepard suffered severe wounds from the gory beating and languished in hospital in a coma until he died from the complications from a skull fracture six days later.
His tragic death galvanized the LGBT community in a way no other similar incident has and is considered the watershed moment when the term “hate crime” began to be used. President Barack Obama signed federal legislation into law known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
Director Michael McKelvey unveiled his version of The Laramie Project last weekend for the beginning of its three-week run at the Timothy K. Baker Stage on the campus of Delgado Community College.
This thoughtful and very moving work has 14 actors representing at least two dozen of the Laramie, Wyoming residents who knew Shepard or were witness to events surrounding his death. The actors also represent the actual members of the Tectonic Theater Project organized by playwright Moises Kaufman, who were moved to do something after Shepard’s gruesome and tragic death.
Kaufman and the members of his team conducted interviews over a year period and came up with people from all walks of life who were affected by the savage beating and death as well as getting comments from those who knew the two men who were convicted of administering the beating that took Shepard’s life.
The cast includes a number of actors McKelvey has worked with either at Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane, where he is artistic director, or with his own production companies, the Storyville Collective and Doctor Mistuh Productions. These include highly regarded actors Khiry Armstead, Beau Bratcher, Elyse McDaniel, Hannah Rachal, Matt Reed, Eli Timm and eight others.
The story exposes the small town of Laramie with a population a little over 25,000 as a place still filled with prejudice, xenophobia and homophobia. Most of the interviewers are visibly shaken at what they see and hear, as many of them represent various segments of the LGBTQ community.
This is a true ensemble work with a very spare staging and some remarkable projections that serve to represent various settings in Laramie. Originally written for three acts, McKelvey combined the last two acts into one. The show still clocks out at two and a half hours including a single 15-minute intermission.
At times it is raw. At times it is unsettling. But it is always pertinent and as valid today as it was when it was first presented 19 years ago.
In addition to eliciting riveting performances by his cast, McKelvey also arranged for a special musical selection to accompany the course of the presentation. Culled from the work “Considering Matthew Shepard” by Craig Hella Johnson and performed by Conspirare, the Grammy Award-winning chorale ensemble Johnson directs, the music and chorus acts as a subtext to the actors’ speaking roles. This is the regional premiere of this musical work being heard locally.
McKelvey also plans a special student presentation on October 12, the specific date Shepard died as a result of his injuries. He believes it is a teachable moment by which students can learn the legacy of hate and the culture of xenophobia that led to Shepard’s death.
Lighting design by Joan Long is outstanding along with Delgado’s technical director Tom Dawson and scenic design by James Means. The entire production is sponsored by the Theatre Arts Department at Delgado with Michael Aaron Santos as the chair of Theatre.
The Laramie Project continues at the Timothy K. Baker Stage at Delgado Community College, 615 City Park Avenue, with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4-6, at 8:00 p.m. Sunday’s final matinee performance on Oct. 7 is at 3:00 p.m. For tickets ($10.00-$25.00), call 800-838-3006 or click here. ($5.00 off with promo code NOBO20)