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'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

The Laramie Project — one of the most-performed plays of the last decade — is based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, the young man who, in October 1998, was savagely beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyo. Almost instantly, Shepard's name became a kind of grim rallying cry for those drawing attention to hate crimes committed against gays.

Now there's an epilogue to The Laramie Project, and tonight more than a hundred theaters around the country will perform readings of the new play. Together with the first one, it constitutes a powerful version of Matthew Shepard's story.

But it's not the only version — and that's a big part of why the epilogue exists.

Listening To Stories, And Hearing Multitudes Within

Playwright Moises Kaufman, who led the team of theater-collective collaborators who created The Laramie Project, is fascinated by stories — how we tell them, how we respond to them, how we use them.

"We tend to think of story, and history specifically, as one thing," says Kaufman. "But the most exciting narratives are the ones that combine many different points of view, and many different people who tell it."

To tell Matthew Shepard's story, Kaufman and the members of his Tectonic Theater Project relied on more than 200 interviews that they conducted in Laramie shortly after Shepard's murder.

The result was the play (later made into an HBO feature film) called The Laramie Project; it blends performances of many of those interviews with a re-enactment of parts of the trials of Shepard's killers.

Among the people that the Tectonic corps interviewed were investigators, ranchers, clergymen and Shepard's friends. They talked to the bartender at the Fireside Lounge, where Shepard and his killers were seen the night he was beaten; one of Shepard's teachers at the University of Wyoming; the policewoman who was called to the crime scene where Shepard, brutally beaten, lay on the ground tied to a fence; the lead investigator on the case; and a professor who followed the trials of Shepard's killers. "When they used gay panic as a defense," she told Tectonic Theater, "I said 'This is good.' Because if nothing else, the truth is going to come out."

For Shepard's mother, The Laramie Project has not only kept her son's story alive, it has educated "the participants as well as the audience about what bigotry lies within us all," Judy Shepard says. "In every community, not just Laramie."

A Story Retold — And The Retelling Rebutted

Matthew Shepard's savage killing was used to strengthen the argument for hate-crimes legislation. But meanwhile, another version of his story was gathering steam.

Six years after the crime, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 set out to debunk the idea that Shepard was murdered because he was gay. Like The Laramie Project, the one-hour episode included interviews with Shepard's friends, as well as investigators assigned to the case. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas interviewed Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russ Henderson, both serving life sentences.

Shepard, 20/20 reported, may have used methamphetamine. The report said that McKinney had been a dealer. "Meth is what made the world go around in Laramie," a friend of McKinney's and a former dealer told Vargas.

20/20 also reported that McKinney and Henderson had been on a meth binge in the days before meeting Shepard. And prosecutor Cal Rerucha told 20/20 that "the methamphetamine just fueled this point where there was no control. So, it was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. But it was a murder that was driven by drugs."

Playwright Moises Kaufman believes the 20/20 story was "terrible journalism" that "changed the nature of the dialogue." So one of his goals with the new Laramie Project epilogue was to debunk the 20/20 story.

Kaufman and his Tectonic colleagues went back to Laramie last year, re-interviewing many of the people they'd met a decade ago — as well as talking to some new sources.

"One of the things we do in the play," says Kaufman, "is we go back and ask investigators ... and we go back over trial transcripts, and we prove that it was a hate crime."

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later includes the comments of Rob Debree from the Albany County Sheriff's Office in Laramie.

"We've proven that there were no drugs on board with McKinney and Henderson — just none," Debree declares. And what about the claim that Shepard's murder was a robbery and drug deal gone bad? "That's some kind of massive denial," one openly gay Laramie resident tells Tectonic Theater.

Laramie police commander Dave O'Malley, who also appears in the 20/20 episode, says: "It angered me more than anything the things [ABC] didn't say — the things they left out."

In The Middle, Room For A Blend Of Both Explanations

There is yet a third way to look at the Matthew Shepard story.

Journalist JoAnn Wypijewski wrote an extensive article (read an excerpt) for Harper's magazine in 1999. She thinks the truth lies where the two versions overlap.

"Of course it had to do with homophobia. Of course it had to do with drugs. Of course it had to do with violence in the culture," Wypijewski says.

She says she has problems with The Laramie Project and with the 20/20 report. Both offer too narrow an explanation for why Shepard was killed, she contends.

"If you say 'It's just about hate,' or 'It's just about drugs,' you so simplify the story," Wypijewski says. "It's not either-or."

Wypijewski thinks the oversimplifications began as soon as Matthew Shepard was held up as an emblem for hate crimes.

"Emblematic stories need emblematic victims," maintains Wypijewski. "So Matthew needed to be an emblematic victim. And as soon as you have to do that, you start creating a kind of myth."

Kaufman knows very well that which story you tell — and which story you choose to believe — depend a lot on your own agenda.

"Stories are malleable," he says. "History is malleable. And so we have to be doubly vigilant when we listen to history and we listen to stories."

On Oct. 12, 2009 — 11 years to the day after Matthew Shepard's death — his story will be told again by Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company, in more than a hundred theaters around the country.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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