Calling all Theater companies and performers!

Open Call to Theater companies, performers, researchers:
I would like to hear other voices besides my own on this blog. If you'd like to write about your TLP experiences here, e-mail them to me and I'll put them up.
Topics can include dramaturgy to staging to personal responses to the play. Anything goes!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fear, Loathing and "The Laramie Project": 10 Years Later, 1500 miles away

The October 12 performance was a watershed moment for me.  For one, it was the first time I had had a healthy interaction with a TLP performance, and it was only the second time I had actually dialogued back with the play-- two plays, now. 

The performance has given me a lot to think about, a lot to question, and especially a lot for introspection.  This blog entry is my first attempt to try and work through what the play experience was like from my observer's perspective.   

I hadn't really slept since the Friday night before the performance.   Adrenaline kept me moving through most of Sunday when I chatted with the cast, but by Monday I was absolutely dragging.  I was actually in the middle of an LGBTA meeting right before I left for the performance site and nervous as heck.  (Yes, I'm a straight, conservative evangelical who's actively involved in the LGBT community-- please, just... deal with it.)  This week, I was catching up with a friend I'll call "Lucas"  while everyone else chatting about the National Coming Out Day activities and were planning on seeing Milk that evening on campus.  "Lucas" and I whispered back and forth confidentially in the middle of the hubbub; he'd had an absolutely miserable weekend.  
"I've got to run to the play," I finally said when I couldn't wait any longer.  "I'll catch you later."  My friend gave me a funny look.
"You okay, hun?"  He asked.
"This play scares the hell out of me,"  I confessed.  Naturally, this confused him.  You see, I had never told anyone in that room except the club president my history before. 
"Why would it scare you?"   He asked.  So I came out with it to my friend "Lucas" right there. He was dumbfounded.  "Lucas" gave me a bear hug to comfort me before I left, and then I slipped out the back door.    
I went to the play alone.  My husband had evening classes until well after the play started anyhow, and besides-- this felt like a beast I had to confront on my own.  For some reason, this case has never haunted him like it has me.  That's always struck me as odd-- my husband went to high school with Matthew Shepard, and they knew each other slightly.  I never knew him at all.  My husband has an almost stoic acceptance and peace regarding the circumstances of Shepard's murder.  So why should I be the neurotic one, I often wonder? 
I drove to the theater site about an hour ahead of time to snag a seat; "Joe" was kind enough to reserve a place for me in case our first come, first serve performance filled up quickly.  The performance location was small and intimate like the 2006 TLP performance, and oddly appropriate for the reading of the Epilogue.  The building itself was the site of a homophobia-fueled hate crime a little over a year ago, and it was a little eerie walking around knowing what had happened there; two people had died in a shotgun attack during a children's theater performance.  Tragic spaces like this are everywhere, it seems.

Several people I bumped into before the performance were there the day of the attack, and watching the play that night was a way for them to heal.  My minister friend surprised me by showing up to the performance for moral support; at the intermission, he introduced me to the parents of a mutual friend.  As I shook their hands, there was a weird moment of... I don't know what.  You see, I knew that they had survived the shotgun attack a year ago; they knew I had been in Laramie when Matt was murdered.  We looked at each other in that moment with a bit of surprise and a lot of compassion.

It was hard to wait for the reading to start.  They had this slide show of Laramie history and quotes running on the projector screen before the live linkup in New York, and it seemed a little strange to my Wyoming native's eyes.  I suppose that the goal was to give some Laramie a history to the audience, but it seriously reinforced Laramie as the Wild West, a lawless area where vigilante justice was the only justice; a lot of the slides focused on "Big Steve" Long and the showdown at the Bucket of Blood saloon.  For instance, one iconic picture showed the work of the "vigilance committee" in action: three dead men with stretched necks, dangling from a makeshift gallows.  Ouch.   (linked at left.) They also talked of Wyoming's equal franchise and first woman governor, so there was some balance, I suppose.  There were also slides of Phelps and his protest signs, which I couldn't look at.

It was a bit of a relief when the live linkup started and Moisés Kaufman came on the screen.  There was one funny moment when Kaufman said, "Okay, we're going to shut off the live feed n--" and the video stopped right there, Kaufman frozen on the screen in the middle of the syllable we'd never hear him finish.  Everybody chuckled a little, and it was time for the reading to begin. 

This time, I found that it helped a lot knowing the actors this time before I watched the production.  Having some kind of relationship with them somehow made the revelations of the new play a little easier to swallow because I understood their connection to the play and their reasons for doing it.  They all basically had something at stake in the performance.  That didn't make their revelations any easier to bear, however: I saw images of people in deep, deep denial concerning Shepard's death, and I saw a lot of people battered and abused by the media.  I don't know if I can get all my thoughts worked out about the performance here, but let me give you a few of my observations. 

For one, I had figured all my connections to that community were gone; I guess I was wrong.  I was surprised at how many of the new interviewees I actually knew, which included Dr. Loffreda and an old boss of mine.  Beth was one of my favorite professors in the English department.   I always thought there was something both beautiful and improbable about Dr. Loffreda: she was eccentric and brilliant, and a subtle reader of texts and culture.  She always seemed so confident and self-composed, and (from a freshman's perspective, at least) she seemed to act on her convictions with little regard to social disapproval, which I admired intensely.   I took just about every class she offered that I could get into.  (Honestly, it's still a little surprising that, between her and Dr. T, I didn't end up in American Lit and Film Studies instead of being a medievalist.)  Her story made me proud to be a product of UW.  Way to go, Dr. Loffreda: the Jackrabbit would like to say 'hello' to you and Dr. T-- and thanks for keeping it up.   

I was not privy to what had gone on during the DOMA vote in Wyoming's state legislature, so I really enjoyed hearing both Connolly's perspective and the goodwill she received from her desk mate.  I'm still suprised (and so pleased) to see the number of Republican legislators who voted it down.  It just goes to show you, I think, that the issue of gay equality isn't a conservative-vs.-liberal issue.  It's a human rights issue.  I was proud to see the conservative Republicans of the kind that I grew up with approaching the DOMA amendment with that kind of philosophy-- and that level of compassion.  It's just one more little spring of hope for living up to being The Equality State.   My favorite line from the play will probably be this one, which I think went as follows:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are the state of Matthew Shepard and Brokeback Mountain." 

There is so much wrapped up in that statement that it still makes me smile.

The interviews with McKinney and Henderson, however, were devastating.  When their names came up early in the play, I actually found myself shaking my head because I didn't want to hear from them.  I especially didn't want to hear from McKinney; he was much easier to handle as a monster than as a man, and I didn't want to shoulder the responsibility of considering him a human being. Strangely, I couldn't find a single place to sympathize with him during his testimony until he talked about his admiration for Father Roger and his fear of disappointing him.  That made me connect with Aaron McKinney in a way I didn't want, and he became a human being to me then.  I had only met Father Roger on a few occasions, but he was a bit of a hero for me in college; he and one of his parishioners in the Music department (Dr. B) served as examples for my own spiritual transformation. What does it mean that both he and I have such a strong personal admiration for Father Roger, I wonder?  That McKinney can recognize the value of compassion and loyalty even if he has no compassion himself?  Or is it just Father Roger's loyalty he admires?  I don't know. 

Knowing that McKinney had the kind of admiration for Father Roger that I did made me connect with him a little, and that hurt.  Now I just wish that McKinney hadn't spoken of the .357 that he used to bludgeon Matt to death with in the same admiration.  I still don't know what to do with that.    Even for a reading, the staging of this scene was brilliant: from their two bar stools near the front of the stage, the seated actors playing McKinney and his interviewer shared one brief moment of contact, a handshake over an imaginary metal barrier before they read their lines.  It was the only physical contact between the actors I remember from the entire night, and it was powerful. 

As for Henderson?  I had a weird sort of pity for him long before the Epilogue.  My brother had met Henderson before a few times (they both tended to hit the same parties).  My brother said that people used to make fun of his protruding ears and call him "Dumbo."  Everybody laughed at him.   He always seemed to me, and still is, somebody to be pitied-- not because he necessarily deserves it, but because his failures say so much about what it means to be human.  Granted, his lack of self-esteem and personal paralysis made him just as responsible for Matt's death as McKinney, but it didn't make him inhuman to me like McKinney had been for so long.  In a way, it made him more human, as if he were a victim of his own indecision in some small way just like Shepard was. 

But the thing that really outraged me was the silencing of Jonas Slonaker by the Boomerang staff.  Jonas is a little bit of a mystery to me (I can't say as I've ever met him personally), but I and my students tend to identify with him.  Both his common sense and his love-hate relationship with the Western mythos resonates with me.  I, personally, like his resistance to happy endings; Jonas is willing to both challenge a story and keep it from resolving prematurely, and I think that takes a lot of courage.

Granted, I have to keep in mind that we don't get the full text of that letter to the Editor in the Epilogue, so there might have been other reasons it was rejected.  But somehow I don't get the feeling that that's the case.  When Jonas talks of driving out into the middle of nowhere and screaming his head off in helpless rage, I completely understood that impulse-- and it made me burn with outrage for him.   I enjoyed the irony of the "Streisand Effect" that the Editor's rejection caused nonetheless: when she tried to quash his voice, it multiplied.  If she had just let Slonaker have his say after her editorial, then maybe we wouldn't have heard his opinion in all 50 states and internationally from the stage.  That seemed like just desserts. 

So that's all I really have room for here.  Did I bawl?  You bet.  I couldn't bear to hear the new description of the crime scene right before the Intermission.   I cried right through both McKinney and Henderson's interviews.  I was so outraged at McKinney's whining about being cold in jail after he had left a man to die in the frost that I actually called him a "f---ing waste" to "Joe" after the play.  (Sorry, "Joe.")   But I also got to hug and thank all those actors personally for doing what they did that night.  It's totally screwed up my life at the moment and I couldn't sleep for a couple days afterward, but I'm so glad I went.  It's given me a lot to chew over.


1) Poster for TLP: 10 Years Later, for the Laramie, WY performance.  Courtesy of Elmada's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

2)  "A Candle of Hope," picture in memorial for the hate crime mentioned above,  from Archeia Muriel's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Full story linked in the Flickr page on the image.  

3) Picture from the San Francisco reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, taken by Steve Rhodes, from his Flickr photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Rhodes has provided a veritable treasure-trove of links relating to the performance and the Shepard beating on the set page for these photos. 

No comments:

Post a Comment