'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold The 1999 play The Laramie Project explores the true story surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998. The case, which became a landmark symbol for hate crimes, still elicits varied reactions — which is why on Oct. 12, hundreds of other theaters around the world will perform The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, an Epilogue.
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'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

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'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Today, 11 years ago, a young man was savagely beaten and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming. The killing of Matthew Shepard has become a symbol of hate crimes committed against gays and has been explored through theater and television. "The Laramie Project" is one of the most performed plays of the last decade.

And tonight, more than 100 theaters around the country are staging readings of a new play, an epilogue to "The Laramie Project." But these are not the only stories about Shepard's murder. And all these stories don't agree, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Playwright Moises Kaufman is fascinated by stories — how we tell them, respond to them, use them.

Mr. MOISES KAUFMAN (Playwright): We tend to think of story and history, specifically, as one thing. But the most exciting narratives are when you combine many different points of view and many different people who tell it.

BLAIR: To tell Matthew Shepard's story, Moises Kaufman relied on more than 200 interviews that he and members of his Tectonic Theater Company conducted in Laramie shortly after Shepard's murder. The result was "The Laramie Project," a performance of many of those interviews, like with the bartender at the Fireside Lounge, where Shepard went the night he was beaten.

(Soundbite of play, "The Laramie Project")

Unidentified Man #1: He comes in, he's always dressed real nice, clean-cut, didn't seem to have any worries. It wasn't like he was waiting on anybody. He just wanted to enjoy his drink and the company around.

BLAIR: One of Shepard's teachers at the University of Wyoming.

(Soundbite of play, "The Laramie Project")

Unidentified Man #2: Matthew was very shy when he first came in, to the point of being somewhat mousy.

BLAIR: The policewoman who was called to the crime scene where Matthew Shepard, brutally beaten, lay on the ground tied to a fence.

(Soundbite of play, "The Laramie Project")

Unidentified Woman #1: He was covered in dried blood all over his head. And the only place that there wasn't any blood was what appeared to be where he had been crying down his face.

BLAIR: And a professor who followed the trials of Shepard's killers.

(Soundbite of play, "The Laramie Project")

Unidentified Woman #2: So, when they used gay panic as the defense, I thought, this is good because if nothing else, the truth is going to come out.

BLAIR: For Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy, "The Laramie Project" has kept her son's story alive.

Ms. JUDY SHEPARD: It's had so much do with educating the participants, as well as the audience, about what bigotry lies within us all in every community, not just Laramie, but everywhere.

BLAIR: The story of Matthew Shepard was used to strengthen the argument for hate crime legislation. But that's not the only story. Six years after the crime, the show "20/20" set out to debunk the story that Shepard was killed because he was gay.

Unidentified Woman #3: Over the next hour, you will hear a very different account from the killers themselves and from new sources who have come forward for the first time.

BLAIR: Matthew Shepard, "20/20" reported, may have used methamphetamine and was known in drug circles in Laramie. They reported that one of his killers was a dealer.

Unidentified Man #3: Meth is what made the world go around in Laramie.

Mr. CAL RERUCHA (Prosecutor): Methamphetamine just fueled this point that there's no control. So, it was a horrible, horrible murder, but it was a murder that was, once again, driven by drugs.

BLAIR: Playwright Moises Kaufman believes the "20/20" story was, in his words, terrible journalism that changed the nature of the dialogue. So, one of his goals with the epilogue to "The Laramie Project" is to debunk the "20/20" story. Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Company members went back to Laramie last year and interviewed many of the same people they'd met a decade ago, as well as some new people.

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

Unidentified Man #4: We've proven there was no drugs on board with McKinney and Henderson. Just none.

BLAIR: And make the case that it was not just drugs or a robbery.

Unidentified Man #4: It's just crazy, and that's denial. That's some kind of massive denial.

BLAIR: And there is yet a third way to look at the Matthew Shepard story.

Ms. JOANN WYPIJEWSKI (Journalist): 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.

BLAIR: JoAnn Wypijewski is a journalist who also wrote a story on Matthew Shepard for Harper's magazine. She has problems with "The Laramie Project" and the "20/20" report. She says both have too narrow an explanation for why Shepard was killed.

Ms. WYPIJEWSKI: If you say it's just about hate or it's just about drugs, you so simplify the story.

BLAIR: Wypijewski believes it's not either-or and that many factors were involved that night, including hate and drugs. Wypijewski believes the oversimplifications started as soon as Matthew Shepard was held up as an emblem for hate crimes.

Ms. WYPIJEWSKI: Emblematic stories need emblematic victims. And so Matthew needed to be an emblematic victim. And as soon as you have to do that, you start creating a kind of myth.

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

Mr. KAUFMAN: Stories are malleable and that history is malleable and that we have to be doubly vigilant when we listen to history and we listen to stories.

BLAIR: Tonight, the Matthew Shepard story is being told by Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company. More than 100 theaters around the country will all perform readings of "The Laramie Project," 10 years later, an epilogue.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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