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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Airing of Grievances, Charge 1

As it turns out, my brother Coyote, who still lives in Laramie, also has an angsty relationship with The Laramie Project. I had already sort of known this, of course; both he and my sister were living in Laramie back in 1998, too, and back in my "I hate this freaking play" phase in the Deep South, he and I had a few conversations about that.

But until this summer, I thought that his complaints just stemmed from his own personal knowledge of the incident.  Coyote, you see, knew both of the killers and Matt Shepard through various channels even though he didn't have any kind of deep relationship with any of them.  He was much better friends with "Sascha" and several other members of the LGBTA on campus.  And, since our conversations had mostly revolved around that social set, I had always thought that his main gripe against the play was just the "accuracy" issue. 
As it turns out, though, I was wrong; his dislike was more complicated than I had given him credit for.  Over dinner one night at a fancy bar and grill (where I was buying him his obligatory steak dinner), Coyote told me that he had watched the HBO version of the play and had some extremely pointed comments about its message.  He said he didn't like what the HBO version had to say about what Laramie was like as a community, and he didn't think that the message had any balance.  He was also surprised that I didn't completely disagree with him.  "On the whole, though, don't you think this play has done some good nationwide?" I asked him.   "I mean, people are actually willing to talk about issues like this now..." 
"Well, sure, yeah," Coyote said.  "I can totally see where this play has done a lot of good.  But, come on, Jackrabbit-- why did we have to be the ones to pay for it?" 

"So, you mean you feel like telling Laramie's story comes at a cost?"  I asked him.  
"Hell yeah," He answered through a mouthful of steak.  "This sort of thing happens all over the country, but I don't see any of them having to relive this story every time somebody puts on a play."  He waved his fork at me for emphasis.  "We can't escape it.  We can't even answer back to it.  How fair is that?"   
I couldn't keep my jaw off of the floor when he said that.  I had sort of been wondering the same thing for months: does the simple fact of telling Matt's story in the context of this community cause social damage?  Like Coyote, I know the kind of social good this play has engendered on the macro scale; but I also wonder, like him, what kind of unintended cost the microcosm of Laramie has had to absorb as a result.

And so, I hereby must proceed to the airing of my first grievance in this Festivus season:  

1.Contributing to the Delinquency of Narrative

Or, I could call it "Transporting an Underage Story Across State Lines," I suppose.  The point is this: in disseminating this story, Tectonic has left many in Laramie feeling like they have no control over their own identities, leaving some people to feel vulnerable or exposed, a point I've discussed before.  That may not necessarily be a bad thing, but let's work out the details to see where it leads...

So I'd like to take credit for this point, but I can't.  "Joe," the actor from the Pacific northwest who talked with me before the premiere of 10 Years Later back in 2009, was the first person to explain it to me in those terms.  We were just sitting down to chat when I felt I needed to clear the air.  "Look, I have to be honest, Joe," I told him.  "I know you're involved in the reading of this play and all, but I'm not sure I'm actually on board with what Kaufman did here.  This play actually makes me feel really ambivalent.  And nauseated."  Joe nodded his head.

The Emperor's New Clothes, by Harry Reminick_Library of Congress & Promegranate. 5297"I totally understand where you're coming from.  I'm pretty ambivalent about this play, too,"  he replied, and I stared at him a little in disbelief.  "Say again?"  I asked.  He smiled in sympathy.

"Nobody wants to lose control of their own story," Joe told me, "and that's exactly what happened.  Laramie is defined by this narrative now, and losing control over something that defines you is a frightening thing."  And at that moment I realized that this actor who has spent his entire career transporting narratives had just found a name for my ambivalence: it was a kidnapped story.

Or, let me see if I can put it another way.  Let's say that the narrative in question was something like the parade in The Emperor's New Clothes, where somebody points out that Laramie, Wyoming is parading through the nation in nothing but its birthday suit.  That's all well and good, and perhaps pointing out their nakedness, ultimately, was the right thing to do.  Only, now imagine that everybody is in their birthday suits, and the story of Laramie's nakedness gets spread all over the globe.

And so, for the rest of its existence, Laramie must forever wander through a land of bare skin, covered from neck to ankles but still knowing it's naked under those clothes, forever pointed out as the "streaker" in every social setting.  And every time that Laramie protests and points out that everybody else is naked and it's covered, they scoff and say that Laramie is deeply misguided and in denial.  Now that's awkward. 

Okay, so a Hans Christian Anderson story isn't exactly the most useful analogy, but it points out the narrative difference here between the way that many non-residents of Laramie have talked about Laramie's reaction to the Shepard murder and the two plays which followed.  "They're just in denial," the papers proclaimed after 10 Years Later.  "They don't want to face facts."  Or, as Carl Sullivan put it in Newsweek, "Tired of being known as the hate-crime town, many Laramie residents seem to have concocted a revisionist version of what transpired... Residents could accept that Laramie might be home to drug crimes (what town isn’t?), but mindless hate? No way."  That town's been facing facts for twelve years now, I want to answer back.  Of course some people lapse into denial, but how much soul-searching have you had to do about hate crimes in that same time period?   

It's her fault!
Dude, like, it's all her fault.  Don't look at me... 
Instead, maybe we should think of this not so much as a narrative of embarrassment and denial so much as an Adam and Eve story.  Once a fatal, tragic deed gives them a permanent view of themselves outside of their own perspective, they realize they are naked-- and the knowledge of that lost innocence and their inability to shed that external scrutiny will follow them forever.

So, what might that self-consciousness look like for Laramie?  Just for some idle speculation, here are a few ways I think that it might manifest itself:
  • First of all, I think that putting this story out into the open has the nasty side effect of making Laramie self-conscious about its own identity and forcing it to become a meta-narrative. While that makes for some good Postmodern fiction, that neurotic self-consciousness is a painful way to exist for more than a short period.  
  • Secondly, there is the idea of "stealing" Laramie's narrative of self and spreading it around with a critical commentary/ interpretation attached to it. Not only does it contain Laramie's story of itself, it's embedded in a narrative that has to explode these myths by necessity.  Like it or no, Laramie's name in The Laramie Project always comes with a judgment attached-- maybe not so much from Tectonic Theater judging this community but because the community is judging itself. That invites the same kind of judgment and scrutiny from the audience. 
  • Taking a concrete, substantial place and abstracting it into a myth is painful because the elements of the legend and reality will never completely line up.  Life's not easy when you're a living symbol; just ask Birmingham. 
  • Losing the false (but comforting) belief that communities, like people, wield their own identities and forge their own destiny.
This is something I've talked about, both the good and the bad, in that conference paper I did (and of which you can see a rough draft, complete with typos, here.)  When you look at this list, what you see is that the only thing that Laramie really lost was a false sense of stability and an essential identity they could control.  That is, their only real loss is a loss of innocence, but one which would have massive repercussions on the community: "And their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked."  That sense of stability instead dissolves into a realization of how capricious and in flux one's sense of identity really is.  (Do I sound a little like the folklorist in 10 Years Later?  I suppose maybe a little...)

Is this an actual harm perpetrated on the community, however?  I guess I'm ambivalent on that point.  After all, what this mostly amounted to was a wake-up call to the community about difference and exclusion, and becoming self-aware of these things is important if you're striving for equality in your community.  The main difference is just that, while Laramie has been forced to sit at the altar of reckoning in the national consciousness, very few other towns have had to do the same thing.  Sometimes this play helps individuals, like Rob DeBree, become self-aware of these problems by presenting them with Laramie's story.  And sometimes you get the opposite effect.  "Look, Laramie's got no clothes," someone proclaims as they watch the story.  But they don't realize they're naked, too, because they haven't had that damaging sense of self-consciousness visited upon them.  And there's nothing more disturbing, Plato might say, than living among people with their eyes shut tight.    

On the whole, I really do think that it's is a pretty darn good thing that happened; at least, good has come out of Tectonic's interaction with Laramie.  (I don't want to call it a felix culpa, however.  I read Patristics, after all!)  I've pointed out before how destabilizing that sense of community and identity in Laramie was important for giving those at the community's edges-- the LGBT, the religious minorities, the poorer residents-- a clear voice and an ability to to define the same community which had pushed them to the corners.  You can't do that without forcing somebody to give up a little control, to get a little vertigo.  And every time you push to take back or rewrite a narrative, somebody's going to push back.

I also believe that taking this story to the nation-- eventually-- was the right choice, even though it's had some interesting consequences; I mean, look at all the productive national dialogue the story has spurred!  And yet, maybe we also need to recognize that putting this story out for national scrutiny and judgment came at some kind of cost.  Laramie had no way to speak back to this narrative of self anymore, and they realized they couldn't control how people viewed it.  Perhaps it's even possible (like it was in my case) that some felt that their only choices were to either unquestioningly accept TLP's portrayal of the community or to disavow it altogether. 

Which leads me to the actual reason I wanted to address this as an actual grievance rather than just a commentary on the play's influence: 
  • Not acknowledging the consequences of forcing that self awareness on a community when it makes some of them want to bury their heads in the sand.  
In the national news, Kaufman and company wrote a short piece in Newsweek describing the climate in Laramie at the time of the premiere of 10 Years Later  where they addressed the robbery narrative as a "real cause of concern."  The article continues as follows:
So why has this distortion of the truth become so prevalent? One hypothesis is that because Laramie was portrayed in the media as a backward town where hatred and bigotry were rampant, forcing the citizens to question their identity as an idyllic community, a "good place to raise your children." "And when we have a theory about who we are," says Laramie resident Jeffrey Lockwood, "and the data goes against that theory, we throw out the data rather than adjust the theory. We are hardwired as human beings not to contemplate our own complicity in things."
I suppose that I agree with Lockwood-- having to question one's own self-image is painful, and sometimes that leads to negative reactions like hostility or denial.  But I have to ask:  What has been the most important catalyst for that response?  Let's let Jeff Lockwood be our guide: "we're hardwired as human beings not to contemplate our own complicity in things."  Just as parts of Laramie don't want to ponder the societal guilt they carry after Matt's murder, maybe Tectonic Theater doesn't want to consider that just maybe all the work they've done for gays and lesbians on the national level, and even in Laramie, actually helped push some parts of Laramie over the edge and into full denial.  That's the double-edged sword of forcing self-awareness: the person or society in question can choose to resolve the tension or ignore it, but they can't just dwell in that indecision forever.  How many people has this revelation helped, and where has it made things worse?  

After all, what has kept this story going?  Sure, the story of Matt's murder and the trauma it forced on the Laramie community is compelling in of itself, but the media alone is not the biggest driving force in the last seven years or so.  Elizabeth Vargas' special only ran once or twice, as far as I know.  It had a perceptible, negative impact when it first ran, but now I mostly see references to it lurking about in the same dingy, disreputable corners of the Internet where I also expect to run into Cindy Phelps Roper and Paul Cameron sharing a beer.  Each of these have certainly made an impact on the Laramie community, but would it really be as lasting or pervasive as it has been? 

Let's face it:  it's Tectonic Theater that really keeps this story circulating in the national consciousness.  Since 2000, this play has been produced thousands of times, hundreds every year, across the globe.  Many times, those productions create controversy in those communities and draw media attention.  They're often tied to social or political activism in that community as well, to raise the same issues that the play focuses on.  HBO runs their movie version of The Laramie Project often enough to keep it relevant.  And the result is a huge social awareness about how Laramie exemplifies a need to change the culture when it comes to its outsiders.

So, if there's any "media coverage" that has forced some Laramie residents to deny that the act was a hate crime and eventually embrace the robbery version of Matt's murder, we have to be fair:  The Laramie Project has been the single biggest piece of media coverage of Laramie's disgrace.  And so, in some real part, I think that Tectonic Theater has to acknowledge that their effort to portray this community in turmoil has also contributed in some part to the same backlash they condemn in 10 Years Later.   I can totally understand if that's a seriously uncomfortable possibility for Tectonic to consider, but then again, we can sympathize; it hasn't been comfortable for us, either.

Related Posts:

Jackrabbit's Conference Paper on TLP, sort of
The Tectonic Uncertainty Principle
"Has Anything Changed?"  Thoughts on TT's interaction with Laramie
Faith as Landscape in Laramie, Wyoming

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