Laramie, Wyoming, population 26,687. Laramie, often referred to as the “gem city of the plains” was the site of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old, gay, University of Wyoming student. On October 6, 1998, he was found tied to a “buck” fence, beaten and unconscious. On October 8, 1998, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney were arrested for the kidnapping, aggravated robbery and attempted first-degree murder of Matthew Shepard. On October 12, 1998, Matthew Shepard died in Poudre Valley Health Center after 5 days in a coma. The charges against Henderson and McKinney were amended to include first-degree murder.
The Laramie Project is a play by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project. “On November 14, 1998, members of Tectonic Theatre Project traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, and conducted interviews with the people of the town.” The Play is “edited from those interviews, as well as from journal entries by members of the company.” (The Laramie Project, "Introduction") The Play is about the town of Laramie, its citizens, and their reaction to Matthew Shepard’s murder.
As one of the investigating officers, Sargeant Hing stated: “How could this happen? I—I think a lot of people just don’t understand, and even I don’t really understand, how someone can do something like that. We have one of the most vocal populations of gay people in the state. . . .And it’s pretty much: Live and let live.”
Act 1 introduces the main recurring characters that will be instrumental to the telling of the story. The playwright presents the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project (Greg, Andy, Stephen, Amanda, Moises, Barbara, and Leigh) as serious about the project and somewhat concerned about the challenge. As Moises remarks in the play, "Am a bit afraid about taking ten people in a trip of this nature. Must make some safety rules." Through their interviews, they learn not only about the Matthew Shepard murder, but also about the history of Laramie, its place in the lore of the American West, and the often-repeated mantra, "live and let live." As readers, we quickly see that Laramie's origins in railroad practicalities, its location in some of the most important ranching country in the United States, and its home to the University of Wyoming have helped to develop the tripartite personality of its citizenry. In Laramie, there are the ranchers, the University population, and those who live in Laramie. As Sergeant Hing remarks, "It's a good place to live. Good people, lots of space."
How then could such a brutal murder occur? Was Laramie destined to be "defined by an accident, a crime?" Jedudiah Schultz, a University student, is quick to point out that after Matthew Shepard's murder, Laramie had "become Waco, ...Jasper." The New York actors, there to gather information about the murder for their play, quickly learn that most of the residents want to distance themselves from the taint of bigotry. Citizen Marge Murray:
"As far as the gay issue, I don't give a damn one way or the other as long as they don't bother me. And even if they did, I'd just say no thank you. And that's the attitude of most of the Laramie population. They might poke one, If they were in a bar situation, you know, they had been drinking, they might actually smack one on the mouth, but then they'd just walk away. Most of `em, they would just say, 'I don't swing that way,' and whistle on about their business. Laramie is live and let live."
The Tectonic Theatre Project members, some of whom are openly gay, also sought out gay citizens for their input. Like any other state in the Union, Laramie has gay residents. When we are introduced to Doc O'Connor, a limousine driver, we discover that he had to drive Matthew to Colorado to find a gay bar. But as a typical American university town of the 1990s, Laramie had a "somewhat" open gay society. Citizens Catherine Connolly, Jonas Slonaker, and Romaine Patterson all relate their own stories about being gay in Wyoming and O'Connor rejoices in his knowledge of Wyoming queers.
Also in Act I the playwright introduces the clergy of Laramie. Toward the middle of the act, we meet Doug Laws of the Mormon Church, Stephen Mead Johnson of the Unitarian Church, Roman Catholic Father Roger Smith, and an unnamed Baptist minister. Moises Kaufman uses their interviews to present a debate on the clergy's perception of the morality of homosexuality. We are also introduced to the intellectual inquiry of Zubaida Ula, a Muslim university student. In the first act, the author begins to present the specifics of the crime as shown through the perception of the chief witness and the young man who found Matthew tied to the fence. We also are introduced to the accused killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Herderson. In this first act, they are defined, negatively, by the statements of Matt Galloway, the bartender at the Fireside Bar, and, positively, by a friend of McKinney and a former landlord of Henderson.
Finally, in the act, we meet Reggie Fluty, the chief investigating office, and Dr. Cantway, the emergency room doctor. Their testimony, along with that of Aaron Kreifels, who found Matthew Shepard, finishes the act with clinical detail of the brutality of the crime based on the seriousness of Matthew's injuries.
October 6, 1998
Matthew Shepard is found by Aaron Kreifels. Shepard had been severly beaten and tied to a fence.
October 8, 1998
Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney are arressted and charged with kidnapping, robbery and attempted murder.
October 12, 1998
Matthew Shepard dies at Poudre Valley Health Center.
Members of the Tectonic Theatre Project arrive in Laramie to research a play that examines the Laramie situation.
April 5, 1999
Russell Henderson pleads guilty to felony murder and get two consecutive life sentences.
November 4, 1999
Aaron McKinney is convicted of first-degree felony murder and second-degree murder. Because of the Shepard family he is spared the death penalty.
The Laramie Project opens in NYC.
HBO premieres The Laramie Project Movie.
The Laramie Project is chosen as the common reading for 2004-2005.
The LaGuardia Production of The Laramie Project premieres.