It’s a story which hits a nerve with all of us, a powerful narrative of a terrible hate-filled crime. Telling the story of 21 year-old gay student, Matthew Shepard, who was brutally tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. Originally premiered in 2000, writer Moisés Kaufman, and volunteers from his theatrical group, conducted more than 400 interviews with about 100 Laramie residents. It is these stories and reactions which make up the play.
Matthew Shepard met his killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney in a bar close to Laramie, where they offered him a lift home before tying him to a fence and beating him to a coma and leaving him before he was found 18 hours later by a passer-by.
Due to the nature of the crime, the media attention and pressure from Matthew’s parents and LGBT rights groups, requests pushed for new legislation regarding hate crime. At the time crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes. After much time, and being passed from one president to another, Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law on October 28, 2009, which expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
The play was put on by the Dundonald Association of Music and Drama (DAMD), a cast of 8, and a narrator, who played a variety of roles of those from the city, using the words collected by Moisés Kaufman. Supported by the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the play is very relevant to Northern Ireland where gay hate crimes, and killings, still happen, the most recent being that of Shaun Fitzpatrick in 2008.
Laramie is a small, perhaps insular, city, where everyone knows everyone else, or knows at least one person who knows someone else. Each person saying such a thing wouldn’t happen in “our town”, yet it did.
The performances of each cast-member left the audience stunned for a moment by the end, and helped spur an interesting post-performance discussion, chaired by the ever-ready William Crawley, which questioned what is happening in Northern Ireland to prevent such crimes, the Police Service involvement in homophobic crimes, as well as what are the main causes of homophobia world-wide and in Northern Ireland.
The play is being shown again this evening in the Lyric Theatre, though unfortunately is sold out.
Well done to the Rainbow Project for putting this on as part of Belfast Pride. And again to the Dundonald Association of Music and Drama for an excellent and moving performance.