Eleven years ago, early October found me crying as I sat in my home office writing my weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The subject was Matthew Shepard and how he had been picked up in a gay bar by two young men who then drove him to the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, tied him to a fence in the freezing weather, stripped him of some of his clothing, and beat him to within an inch of his life. Then, they left.
The 21-year-old Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by a passerby, still alive, but in a coma. He would die six days later, but when I was writing the column, he was still hanging on in a hospital, suffering massive brain damage from being pistol whipped by his attackers. I normally don’t cry when I write, but I was so angry that I could do nothing except cry and pound my outrage onto my keyboard. Shepard was attacked simply because he was gay. Why? I kept thinking. Why?
My then 10-year-old daughter arrived home from school that day, saw my red eyes and asked what was wrong. I explained what had happened to Shepard.
“They left him all alone?” she asked, seeming to have skipped right over the fact that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had beat Shepard so severely.
“Yes,” I said.
Her next words have stayed with me, and return every October when I remember Shepard’s parents and their indescribable loss. She asked: “Didn’t they know he would want his Mommy?”
An innocent question from someone who couldn’t imagine what it was like to be 21, what it would be like to be living where you wouldn’t be seeing your mom every day. But she could imagine was that any child in pain would want help. And in her 10-year-old world, help meant Mommy.
What Shepard wanted was the last thing McKinney and Henderson cared about. At least that’s how it appeared to me. My knowledge of their mind set was limited, but tonight, everyone in Tucson has the chance to find out what Shepard’s murderers were thinking by going to the free presentation of The Laramie Project – Ten Years Later; An Epilogue.
The staged reading is the final chapter of the original The Laramie Project. Right after Shepard’s murder, a theater company descended upon the town to conduct interviews with the townspeople. The play that came out of those interviews a year after Shepard’s death was The Laramie Project, which has become one of the most performed plays in the past decade. Lacking in that play, however, were the voices of Shepard’s parents or killers, which the epilogue adds.
The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, will be performed in UA’s Centennial Hall as it is simultaneously performed in more than 100 other theaters in all fifty states, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Hong Kong and Australia (see the links above for all the details of how the project is managing all this). It revisits what has happened in Laramie since the original play and how Shepard’s death still affects the community. There will be an interactive web cast connecting the various sites during the performance, which starts at Centennial Hall at 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public, but Centennial Hall only seats about 1,000 people, so folks interested in attending might want to get there early.
Anyone who cares about a civilized society should go. Anyone who wonders how hate thrives in ignorance should go. And anyone who has ever thought that a person’s differences deserve a violent response, or wondered how anyone can forgive such violence, should go.