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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Airing of Grievances, Charge 2, cont.

Being the Second Charge, 
Regarding the Bed of Procrustes

I had known about Anna Deavere Smith by the time I was a sophomore in college, but I never really sat down and read any of her plays until last year.  I'd often heard the comparison between Smith's amazing work and what Tectonic Theater had done with The Laramie Project, but it took my growing interest in documentary theater and ethnography to finally make me pick up Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

What I found just about knocked me off my feet when I read it.  I could remember the LA riots and the Rodney King trial back when it happened, but it wasn't something that really made an impact on a 12-year old celebrating her birthday in Montana.  Now that that 12-year old is 30 and studying lit, however, Smith's recounting of the event is quite compelling.  I read in Smith's play about everyone from disgraced cops to gang members to old Korean business owners layered together, and it was electrifying.  The voices were messy, sometimes following completely different story lines, but they were woven together by Smith's solo performance and a common bewilderment about what went wrong.  And, at the end, we have the voice of Twilight Bey, a gang member who spoke of hope in the confusion with such clarity that I marveled at him.  When I get back home I want to read through Fires in the Mirror, although the one I'd really like to get my hands on sometime is Let Me Down Easy.

Anna Deavere SmithWhat really fascinates me is the organic way in which these disparate voices seem to come together in Smith's work.  Sure, Smith is a very creative editor, but she felt no need to jettison side narratives that didn't seem to really fit into the whole, like the story of the gang peace talks or the shooting of a young black girl by a Korean shop owner, both of which fill in the richly complicated background of community tension that existed long before Rodney King was beaten.  I almost feel that she's willing to sacrifice continuity for texture.  Some of these voices clash; some don't fit.  And, many of the voices that couldn't fit in the original performance were re-added in the print version as part of her series On the Road: The Search for the American Character.  Smith seems to prefer to keep rather than cut. 

 Now, it could just be that familiarity breeds contempt, but I feel like that there's an unruliness, a slip to Anna Deavere Smith's work that fits the real world pace of painful revelation.  That's an unruliness I don't feel with The Laramie Project, which feels more unyielding and tight like the suspension on a sports car.  I sometimes wonder what had to be chopped off or didn't get noticed when Tectonic wound the plot of this play like a precision watch around the religious narrative.  

Last time, we looked at that story line-- the religious factors contributing to Matt's murder-- which maybe, like Procrustes, Tectonic stretched out to make it fit on their theatrical bed.  What I'd like to explore today are some of the other stories which maybe Procrustes chopped off to make this story run in that direction.  I'm not sure which of these (if any) are really important, but let's see what possibilities we run into!   
Well, I suppose if we're going to talk about chopped narratives, we might as well start this discussion with the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  During the same couple of weeks that Matt Shepard was beaten, two other tragedies made it into the paper's Letters to the Editor, both of which certain members of the Laramie community didn't want to get buried in all the press coverage of the Shepard beating.  One of these stories, minus a name, made it into The Laramie Project in Sherry Johnson's testimony.  The other story was never mentioned at all. 

That second story was the brutal murder of Christin Lamb, an 8-year old girl who was killed in July of 1998.  Lamb's murderer, James Eric Peterson, came to trial at the same time that the Shepard beating broke into the national headlines.  Incidentally, this was the first story that reporter Tiffany Edwards covered when she started up at the Boomerang, and she wrote about that experience after the premiere of 10 Years Later.  Beth Loffreda addresses this same issue in her book Losing Matthew Shepard, along with another murdered girl I knew nothing about-- poor Daphne Sulk. 

The FRC (Now part of Focus on the Family), as far as I know, first used Lamb to criticize the Shepard coverage on a national level, and from there her murder spawned a lot of insincere Internet screaming about Matthew Shepard and the politics of media coverage.  (If you have a strong constitution, you can see some examples here and here.) Why pass laws and cause media hysteria over Shepard's murder, many people complained, when poor Christin Lamb died just as horribly?  When the Shepard-Byrd hate crimes act passed last year, the same story resurfaced.  Christin Lamb became a mascot for religious conservatives and right-wing groups whether her family wanted her to be or not, and while I'm sure that the Lamb family wants their little girl to be remembered, I don't think that these political stooges are quite what they had in mind. 

Okay, so I am absolutely not going to suggest that Tectonic should have included something about the Christin Lamb murder; I don't envy them the job of editing that play one bit, and I'm trying hard not to play backseat driver on that account.  Nevertheless, I am interested in what might have changed if they had.  The possibilities of the Lamb story piques my curiosity mostly because of this passage:
SHERRY JOHNSON:  But, the other thing that was not brought out-- at the same time that patrolman was killed.  And there was nothing.  Nothing.  They didn't say anything about the old man that killed him.  He was driving down the road and he shouldn't have been driving and killed him.  It was just a little piece in the paper.  And we lost one of our guys.  (64)
What Sherry is referring to is the tragic death of Chris Logsdon, a local patrolman; that was the other story which some people struggled to keep alive in the Letters to the Editor section.  As an officer's wife, when Sherry can't understand the media reaction to the Shepard murder, she defaults to the story most personal to her, and that's Chris's death-- not Christin's.

This comparison between Chris and Matt makes sense to Sherrie, but probably not to many readers of TLP.  Matt was bludgeoned to death; the patrolman, however, was killed by negligent homicide.  Matt was targeted for violence; Logsdon died in an accident.  There's no element of sexuality inherent to vehicular homicide, either.  The only resonance to this story with Matt's is the one personal to Sherry; that patrolman could have been her husband.  When this story stands alone, we have to judge Sherry by her bias against Matt rather than her own personal struggles to understand the murder, and so the play makes it look like the people who question the media frenzy just don't get it. 

But now let's add Christin Lamb back into the equation: what do we gain?  First, this was the story that many people were talking about in the same breath as Matt's death, and it caused a variety of community responses.  We see that the tragedy for this community didn't automatically start and stop with Matt; rather, he came as part of a complex of tragedies which the Laramie was still trying to figure out when McKinney and Henderson delivered the knockout blow that sent us reeling.  We would have had a complicated nexus of personal tragedies, all of which fueled Laramie's individual reactions to Matt's death and the media circus which had followed.  

What would it look like if we could see other Laramie residents like Sherry trying to sort out this chaos by looking at Christin or Daphne's stories?  It's hard to say, but it might have looked something like the Korean shop killing in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.  When Smith interviews members of the LA community torn by the riot, she also covers the killing of Latasha Harlins, a black teenager shot in a convenience store; this murder set the subtext for a lot of the racial angst before the riot.  There is no clear "real story" in Smith's retelling; her witnesses tell biased versions in which they blame the other side and the media for racism.  The shooter, Mrs. Du, only received a $500 fine, and the black community cried foul:
[CHARLES LLOYD, lawyer for Mrs. Du]
[Latasha's] five-six, one-hundred-and-fifty-two pounds,
and she beat the hell out of this lady...
Boom! (hard, loud.)
Looka there in the face
Boom! (hard, loud.)
Latasha knocks Mrs. Du down, the lady throws the chair,
picking up a gun now!...

They made it political!
If Latasha had been killed by a black woman it wouldn't have
in the black the papers,
it's such a common occurrence!  (40-41)
.      .      .      .      .      .      .
[GINA RAE, community activist] 
There were two children
who were eyewitnesses to Latasha's death. 
And they both testified
that Latasha
begged Mrs. Du to let her
go and was not trying to steal orange juice
and died with two dollars in her hand. 
Her last act was two dollars in her hand. 
happens-to-us,-we-don't-know.  (48)
Vermont Ave. Riot Damage
A section of Koreatown destroyed in the LA riots.
Was it targeted because of Latasha Harlins? (Smith 39)
 Like Kristen Lamb and Matt Shepard, at first glance the story of Latasha Harlins and Mrs. Du has nothing to do with the beating of Rodney King or the riots that followed.  But that subtext helps us understand the racial tensions in LA which eventually exploded on the night of April 29th.  These tensions in LA make so much more sense when the audience sees that the riot was not really just about what happened to Rodney King.  It's much larger than that one incident of injustice and more complicated than just white vs. black or rich vs. poor.   We understand the King beating and riots as a flash point from a systemic failure rather than a single, definable event. 

So, if we turn back to The Laramie Project, if we put the media backlash in the context of the  Lamb murder and not just the death of the highway patrolman, we can understand a little bit more the environment that led up to Shepard's murder.  A lot of people were already traumatized by Christin and Daphne's murders, and for many of them, the overwhelming media presence after Matt died could have been the last straw. 

For others who were turned off by the issue of Matt's sexual preference, Christin became the easy place to justify their outrage.  Here was a true innocent, they'd say, just 8 years old, who was also brutally assaulted, murdered, and then disposed of in a landfill.  In comparison to Matt, there was no seeming taint of to the victim due to sexuality, and that made her the perfect foil.  And so, for some the ambivalence was genuine, and for others, it was just a safe place to funnel their resistance.  Beth Loffreda makes this exact point:
[T]o some, like Jim Osborn, the comparison of Matt to Kristin and Daphne sometimes masked a hostility for gays: "They became incensed-- why didn't Kristin Lamb get this kind of coverage, why didn't Daphne Sulk get this kind of coverage?  That was the way people could lash out who wanted to say, fuck, it was just a gay guy.  But they couldn't say it was just a gay guy, so what about these two girls?" (Loffreda 26) 
As I've mentioned before, and as Loffreda probably explores in a lot more detail in her book (I'm not through all of it yet), wondering why some people's tragedies are remembered or perpetuated in the media is a legitimate question for those left behind.  Why Matt?  Why not Daphne, or Chris or Christin?  And yet, when Sherry Johnson is our only voice asking that question, we can't understand her point because her only example makes no sense.  We can't see the disparity among those asking that same question, and since we don't see that larger context, we don't understand where Sherry Johnson or others like her come from when they grapple with Shepard's murder. 

There is no doubt in my mind that someone had talked about the Lamb murder to the theater company, but I completely understand why maybe Tectonic didn't want to even touch this story.  You can't even bring Christin's name up anymore without invoking the political and religious perspective which co-opted her as their spokesman against gay rights.  As an innocent child, the story of her death is both horrific and compelling, but it happened three months before McKinney and Henderson met Matt at the Fireside lounge.  Besides, what if Christin Lamb was mentioned in the text: would it have given audience members an "out" just like it did for some Laramie residents?  Perhaps her tragedy was simply too dangerous to tell alongside Matt's.  When we look at Sherry Johnson, she discredits herself at the same time she tries to voice this concern because of her personal bias; she thus represents those who resent Matt's posthumous fame in such a way that the company doesn't have to worry about legitimizing their opinions.  

I guess that's what I miss in TLP when I turn back to Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992: that ambivalence, the tension and slippage that comes when voices clash with no clear resolution and no clear relation to the main plot.  You can't figure out who to believe when Smith brings up the story of Latasha Harlins because her voices won't dialogue, won't see to reason, won't give up their prejudices.  It was a dangerous move to show black community members vilifying each other and treating Koreans like stereotypes in a play about race and identity in America.  Nevertheless, I would argue that the depth and richness one sees in that LA community's tumultuous identity is worth the results. In comparison, if this is indeed the "story of the town of Laramie" as Kaufman envisioned, then the story didn't really just start with Matt; it's more complicated than that, and I would have been interested to see what that context would have looked like on the stage. 

*      *      * 

So, while there are a lot of other story lines I think would have potentially enriched the backdrop to TLP, let me talk about just one more.  When I teach TLP, I also use it to teach research methods, and so I have them research news articles on the Shepard story through various archive databases.  There is one story that somebody finds on LexisNexis every semester, and it electrifies the classroom when they share it: Cindy Dixon.

This is Russell Henderson's mother, whom Russell was estranged from back in 1998.   On January 2nd, 1999, two days after her abusive husband filed for divorce, a depressed Dixon left a bar while severely drunk and apparently hitched a ride from a stranger; that man, Dennis Menefee, Jr.,  was charged with sexually assaulting her and then kicking her out in the snow several miles out of town.  Dixon tried to walk to safety, but she froze to death before she made it, about 1000 feet away from somebody's driveway.  Hear any familiar echoes?  Yeah.  Creepy.  Anyhow, the following December, Menefee plead guilty to a lesser charge and only got nine years in prison. 

One strain of the earliest news reports made it sound like Dixon, dead drunk, just stumbled out the door in the middle of the night and died because she didn't have enough sense to wear a coat, but in reality, she couldn't have walked anywhere from four to twelve miles out of town in a wind chill of -30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Menefee left her there.  When some reporters (like the New York Times) didn't mention that the police were treating her death as a homicide in their reports, they ignored the fact that Henderson's mother was callously murdered and sexually assaulted.  Many national and international papers were only interested in covering Dixon's death as far as it concerned the Shepard trial, so follow-up reports about Menefee's trial for her assault and murder are a little scarce.  Personally, I think that Dixon was denied her victim's right to a voice. 

I really commend Tectonic to returning to this story in 10 Years Later because we needed to see (at least, I did)  Henderson's understanding of his own crimes and how he found remorse for his victim through his own loss.  In the first play, however, Tectonic chose not to broach that story at all.  It was a dangerous story, after all; it risked instilling too much sympathyy, and, as Kaufman has often said, this wasn't supposed to be a play about the killers. Perhaps it was better not to muddy the waters around the victim/perpetrator divide with a story that crosses both of those boundaries. 

And yet, try to read this courtroom scene knowing that Henderson's absent mother was murdered just two or three months before this point, knowing that Ms. Thompson just lost her daughter to violence:
MS. THOMPSON:  ...Your Honor, we, as a family, hope that as you sentence Russell, that you will do it  concurrently two life terms.  For the Russell we know and love, we humbly plead, Your Honor, not to take Russell completely out of our lives.  (83)
RUSSELL HENDERSON:  ...Your Honor, Mr. and Mrs. Shepard, there is not a moment that goes by that I don't see what happened that night.  I know what I did was very wrong, and I regret greatly for what I did.  You have my greatest sympathy for what happened.  I hope that one day you will find it in your hearts to forgive me... (83)
Okay, granted, Russell doesn't sound too sincere here.  And yet, how hard would it be, at that point, to then wholeheartedly agree with the judge when he rules,
Mr. Henderson, this Court does not believe that you really feel any true remorse for your part in this matter.  And I wonder, Mr. Henderson, whether you fully realize the gravity of what you've done.  (83)?  
Maybe, at the time that the first play premiered, Tectonic felt that audiences (and perhaps themselves, too) weren't ready to actually feel pity for one of the murderers, and on that note they might have been right.  Maybe.  I don't really know what to think.  All I know is that Kaufman made a similar decision not to include information about Aaron McKinney's dead mother because he didn't want to get into other motives besides the ones that he felt intersected with the larger community (Wangh 11).  Although I would probably agree that the death of Aaron's mother probably didn't intersect with the larger community, Cindy Dixon's murder did. 

Okay, so Cindy was never mentioned in the first play.  How would this play have been different if she had?  For one, I think it would have been a dangerous move; it would've put the play in danger of flying off its intended course.  It wouldn't have been just about the town of Laramie anymore; we would have had to focus somewhat on the perpetrators and on their humanity rather than just on how the community reacted to them.  We would have been asked to feel pity for their losses, too, and that's a hell of a lot to ask of an audience already watching a gut-wrenching story about a brutal murder.  Maybe the whole thing would have collapsed into ambivalence, and that great social action generated by Tectonic's play would have been blunted by some sympathy for the devil.  

From another angle, though, Cindy's story would have made the play more about Laramie.  As the play itself makes clear, every tragedy has a profound impact on a community's identity, so Cindy's death was a trauma to Laramie, just like Christin's, Daphne's, or Matt's.  The only difference was whom those shock waves affected the most.  Just because the impact zone of Cindy's murder started with Russell Henderson and his grandmother doesn't make it any less of a part of the Laramie story.  It just doesn't feel right to me not to explore this death which impacted the trajectory of the Shepard narrative in 1999.

And yet, I'm not sure there was any real way to integrate it without pulling the play off its intended course.  I don't think I can gripe about this one too much though, because Tectonic eventually did come back to Russell, and the story of Cindy's murder.  They obviously saw the importance of it to the story of Laramie when they came back to it in 10 Years Later, too.  And they were right, too; the scene where Russell recounts his understanding of Matt's death through his mother's is just heart-rending.  Would that knowledge of Cindy's death have ripped the first play apart? 

Okay, now that we've discussed these two stories and whether they could/should have reasonably been worked into the first TLP, here's the grain of salt: remember how the bed of  Procrustes worked, and that it goes both ways.  I may be arguing that Tectonic has chopped the community narrative to fit their notions of what happened, but there's a flip side, too: maybe I'm just trying to stretch these other stories out to fit mine.  I have to keep that in mind, and I don't know-- what do you all think?

Related posts:

The Eds, Take 1
The Eds, Take 2
Aaron McKinney's Tattoos


Kaufman, Moisés and the Tectonic Theater Project.  The Laramie Project.  New York: Vintage, 2001

Loffreda, Beth.  Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of a Gay Murder.  New York: Columbia UP, 2000.  

Smith, Anna Deavere.  Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.  Dramatists Play Service, 2003.

Wangh, Stephen A.  "Revenge and Forgiveness in Laramie, Wyoming."  Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15 (2005):771-778.

Photo credit:

1)  Anna Deavere Smith, taken by Clif1066tm, via Flickr.

2) LA Riot damage in Koreatown, by danagraves.  Via Flickr.   

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting... I just discovered this...