THE LARAMIE PROJECT
University of Wisconsin-Parkside
The Laramie Project
by Moisés Kaufman and Members of Tectonic Theater Project
Directed by Fabrice Conte-Williamson
Scenic Design by Jody Sekas
Lighting Design by Jessica Baker
Costume Design by Misti Bradford
Sound Design by Kevin Gray
Props by Mykah Melone
Photo credit: Petr William
The University of Wisconsin-Parkside, 2023.
In September 1998, NBC’s fall lineup featured a new sitcom, Will & Grace, which would become one of the network’s highest-rated programs for eight consecutive seasons—with an additional three-season reboot a few years later. The show prominently featured two openly gay men: Will, a well-established Manhattan attorney, and his friend Jack, an aspiring actor/dancer/choreographer. NBC’s decision to pick up Will & Grace was somewhat of a surprise given that ABC had recently cancelled Ellen Degeneres’ sitcom Ellen, following the controversy that ensued after the main character came out as a lesbian, resulting in a sharp drop in advertisers and an intense backlash from conservative lobbies.
The first season of Will & Grace was a moderate success though the summer reruns would establish it as must-see TV for the remainder of its run. The show’s success allowed gay characters and their stories to enter the homes of millions of Americans across the country, thus contributing to the growing visibility of queer people in the greater cultural landscape. Within the limitation of primetime network television, Will & Grace provided somewhat compelling portraits of gay men navigating big-city life. The show’s legacy was ultimately cemented when then Vice-President Joe Biden credited the sitcom for having done more to shift public perception on the issue of LGBTQIA+ rights than anything else during an interview on Meet the Press in 2012.
The year 1998 was also a turning point in American politics. Tammy Baldwin made history by being the first woman from the state of Wisconsin elected to the House of Representatives and the first openly-gay member of the United States congress. Today, Baldwin is serving her second term as a U.S. senator and continues to advocate for the rights of LGBTQIA+ Americans.
Despite the cultural and political progress for the Equality Movement that defined the closing years of the 20th century, queer history remembers most vividly the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was found beaten and tied to a buck fence on the outskirts of Laramie in October 1998. Gay bashings and other forms of violence against perceived queer people was nothing new in the United States. However, Matthew’s attack—and later death—quickly captivated the country’s interest in a way that was simply unprecedented. The media frenzy and the public’s appetite for the graphic news stories resulted, perhaps, from the stark contrast between the pictures of Matthew that circulated in the press, in which he looks like an All-American teenager, and the gruesome details of the case depicting the merciless torture he had endured at the hands of his two assailants. Matthew’s murder was in fact a kind of wakeup call for the country, now forced to confront the reality of its deep-seated homophobia and the resulting physical, emotional, social, political, and cultural violence against queer Americans.
A few months after their son’s death, Judy and Dennis Shepard created the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization dedicated to amplifying “the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people.” Among its many achievements, the foundation helped pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which expands the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
The faculty and staff of the Theatre Arts department selected The Laramie Project to open our 2023/2024 season to mark the 25th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder and to honor Matthew’s legacy. We believe that, despite the growing visibility of queer people in American life and some recent groundbreaking legislative achievements such as the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, the rights and well-being of LGBTQIA+ Americans are still under threat. In the past decade, far-right extremist groups have worked diligently to force the removal of books featuring queer characters or themes from public and school libraries, erase LGBTQIA+ history from school curricula, thwart efforts to create a lasting climate of equity, diversity, and inclusion in our workplaces, and prohibit drag performances in the name of “parental rights.” As seen recently in news stories across the country, these efforts have paid off and have resulted in a significant increase in violence against the queer community, including queer youth—a group far more likely to consider, attempt, and die by suicide then their heterosexual peers. We hope that this production of The Laramie Project will invite all members of our community to reflect on our ability and responsibility to ensure the safety of our queer children, friends, students, and neighbors. May this play be a call for action toward a more just future where no one is at risk of losing their life because of who they are and who they love.