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To Be Gay in Cowboy Country 

by Michael Bowen

On Oct. 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard -- age 21, 5'2", 105 lbs., a University of Wyoming student, a gay man -- was discovered, bleeding to death, by a student who at first took him to be a scarecrow. On a remote hillside, Shepard had been tied to a fence, taunted, pistol-whipped, tortured, then left to beg for his life and die by two petty criminals native to the college town of Laramie, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Shepard, barely breathing, had part of his skull caved in. He was abandoned for 18 hours in sub-freezing weather; the two assailants stole his shoes. "The only place that he did not have any blood on him," according to the responding officer, was "where he had been crying down his face." Shepard died five days later, his parents at his bedside.

Between November 1998 and the spring of 2000, 12 members of the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York City-based theatrical troupe, traveled to Laramie six times, interviewing more than 200 Laramie residents and recording their impressions in journals. In November 2000, The Laramie Project, a play edited from these interviews and transcripts, had its world premiere at the Denver Theater Center.

Producing the play -- along with the task of eliciting thoughtful, community-building responses from audiences -- has now become A Moscow Project, under the direction of Tracey Benson. The Laramie Project runs at the University of Idaho's arena-style Kiva Theater Feb. 13-17.

As a small, rural Rocky Mountain college town in a conservative region, Moscow represents an opportunity to produce this play in something like the milieu that inspired it. Benson agrees: "I would make that parallel. This is a farming community. I don't know if I'd characterize it as 'cowboy country,' but certainly there are lots of conservatives in this community." Indeed, the likeness is both spooky and sobering: early in 1999, Will Hendricks, a 26-year-old member of the UI Theater Department, also gay, "disappeared"; foul play is suspected.

Moscow, then, is another community that would benefit from a public discussion of, as Kaufman puts it, "how we think and talk about homosexuality, sexual politics, education, class, violence, privileges and rights, and the difference between tolerance and acceptance." In fact, Benson wants to capitalize on the script's non-realistic features in order to compel a communal examination of our under-scrutinized beliefs. After all, when just eight actors take on 67 roles, there's little point in trying to produce naturalistic episodes; the audience knows full well that it is watching something heightened, artificed. Benson notes that the advantage of seeing "several viewpoints in the same body" is that we "won't let first impressions throw [us] off." One cast member, for example, among his nine speaking roles, will play both a young man whose views about homosexuality shift toward acceptance and the parts of both the homophobic murderers. It's as if the controversy, the town hall meeting, were taking place inside an individual -- exactly where the Moscow version of The Laramie Project wants to situate that debate.

All well and good, but won't this production stand as just another example of preaching to the choir? Religious conservatives and homophobes, unwilling to regard Shepard as a martyr, dubious about hate-crimes legislation, convinced that gay behavior is immoral, aren't likely to flock to the Laramie tent. Benson notes, however, that "several English courses [at UI] are reading [the script] and requiring attendance. Theater 101 will be studying it." Students who might otherwise not even be aware that the play was being produced on campus may actually experience how political theater can erode the bedrock suppositions of their world. The originating theatrical troupe doesn't call itself Tectonic for nothing.

As for how directing Laramie has affected her personally, Benson says that "it has made me realize the issue is a complex one. It's not as easy as pointing out to someone, 'Hey, you're intolerant. Why aren't you more tolerant?' And then the other person says, 'You know, you're right. I'll change.' It's more complex than that. Much hatred is deep-seated, deep-rooted. It's a learned behavior. To unlearn it, people need time to reflect. In this play, the media are portrayed as too aggressive. For those characters in the play who do show an arc of change [toward acceptance], they needed the time to open up, but they had all clammed up after the media storm descended. But then, when Tectonic came into town, they had a chance to talk."

The Laramie Project seeks to deconstruct the polarizing insults of "redneck bigot" and "fag-loving liberal." Tracey Benson hopes that, by attending this theatrical town hall meeting, we might all begin to listen to one another again and put our communal house in order.

Comments? Observations? Write us a letter at [email protected]

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