When something tragic happens to a place, a natural disaster or accident or crime, the legacy of that event takes hold of the community and can change it, for better or worse. When Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, a media frenzy from all over the country and the world turned its gaze onto a quiet, small American town and forever altered the way the town saw itself.
This follow-up to The Laramie Project takes place ten years after the Tectonic Theatre Project left Laramie. It’s an attempt to see what has changed and what has stayed the same in the community since the sentencing of Matthew’s killers. Where the initial play ends somewhat conclusively, with both men being convicted and sentenced for their crimes, the water is murkier now that we’re further out from the event.
A few years prior, 20/20 had done an expose on the famous Laramie hate crime murder and argued that it was a drug deal gone wrong. Mistrust of the media and generalised homophobia led to the conclusion that it was leftist media gone mad which concocted the notion that Matthew was killed because of his sexuality. This allows for a much more comfortable distancing from the killers and the killed because it paints them as “others”; people who did bad things and had bad things happen to them because of it. Now the town is divided again into those who believe the court case and those who believe the 20/20 story.
Using the same cast and set as the Laramie Project, with the addition of an Obama campaign poster, the changes of ten years are subtle. Now the characters are carrying a more curated collection of characters, investigators, friends and family of Matthew, and the murderers themselves. Matthew Pritchard and Andrew Hofman do very well to give flesh and breath to the names of the convicted. They each face their sentences with acceptance and resignation, even as they differ so greatly in their reasoning.
Where Matthew’s father Dennis spoke in the first play, 10 Years Later allows his mother Judy to discuss what Matthew’s death has meant for her. Linda Nicholls-Gidley’s depiction of her as quiet, unassuming, but assured speaks to the tone of this sequel overall. This script isn’t trying to shock with violence or anger but to reveal something more difficult to imagine and more difficult grapple with: fear and the callousness it breeds.
As disheartening as the denial and misremembering of Matthew’s death is, the Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is a nuanced look at how a community handles trauma and attempts to gain control over its own story. A discussion with a fable expert begins to explain how rumour, misinformation, belief, and reality blend to create a comfortable, satisfactory community story.
The people of Laramie are not bad people; their town is not remarkable and what happened within the community, the attitudes and actions that lead to Matthew’s death, isn’t particularly unusual either. But perhaps that’s what makes this return to Laramie so difficult; the way watching these dismissals and rewritings of trauma is really just you staring at yourself.