'Laramie' Producers Revisit Matthew Shepard Tragedy
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the blogosphere has already taken on everything from politics to parenting. Now, it's tackling unemployment. We'll tell you how one blogger is tackling her job search with offbeat and edgy humor. That conversation in just a few minutes.
But first, today marks the 11th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. He was robbed, pistol-whipped and tied to a fence on a cold fall night and left to die. His murder in Laramie, Wyoming, where he was a college student, shook not only that small city but also the rest of the country. That's because it appeared that Shepard was singled out for the attack, at least in part, because he was gay.
For many Americans, the crime became a symbol of anti-gay hatred. Last week, the U.S. House approved a measure expanding hate crimes protections to gays, lesbians and transgendered people, and named that law for Matthew Shepard.
But the story of that crime and what happened to Laramie in its wake defied simple explanations. To tell that story, a group of actors and writers, led by Moises Kaufman, visited Laramie in the days after the crime and met with dozens of community members to find out what happened. They turned those conversations into a play called "The Laramie Project."
And a decade later, that same group returned to Laramie to talk again with its residents and they interviewed one of the two men convicted in the murder. The resulting piece called "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, An Epilogue" premieres tonight in theaters and community centers across the U.S. and around the world.
Joining us now, to talk more about "The Laramie Project" is Greg Pierotti. He's one of the actors and writers of the play. Also with us is Father Roger Schmitthe. He was the campus priest at the University of Wyoming at the time of the murder. He led the first prayer vigil for Matthew Shepard. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Father ROGER SCHMITTHE (University of Wyoming): Hello, Michel. It's good to be with you.
Mr. GREG PIEROTTI (Actor/Writer): Hi, Michel, nice to be here.
MARTIN: Father, can we go back to that time when you realized what had happened, what the circumstances were, what message do you think you wanted to impart to the community?
Father SCHMITTHE: The most important thing for me was, you know, knowing how awful this was, how heinous it was. I wanted to tell everybody in the community to look into their own hearts and see if there was any prejudice there that we needed to get rid of that, you know, would have contributed to this because it was so awful.
MARTIN: Greg, you were the original actors in the theater company that traveled to Laramie to talk to people there and their firsthand accounts are what comprised the play. The play was turned into a film, an HBO film in 2002. I just want to play a short clip for people who are not familiar with the project. The story made national headlines, as we said, and here it is.
(Soundbite of "The Laramie Project")
Unidentified Man #1: It's a crime that goes beyond despicable.
Unidentified Woman #1: Let it be known for abomination.
Unidentified Woman #2: This is not the University of Wyoming. This is not what we're about.
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #3: This never would have made the national news.
Unidentified Woman #3: I don't think there is any problem, let gay people deal with it.
Unidentified Woman #4: We had these guys in jail in less than a day. I think that's pretty damn good.
Unidentified Woman #5: Hundreds of people are pushing Congress to pass a federal law banning hate crimes.
Unidentified Man #4: I would like to urge that people of Wyoming against overreacting in a way that gives one special rights over others. We will wait and see if the beating and torture of Matthew Shepard was motivated by hate.
(Soundbite of drums)
MARTIN: And that's a great montage because it does give you a sense of the range of reactions that you encountered. But, Greg, the part of the epilogue that struck me are the meetings that you had with Aaron McKinney, who was one of the two men convicted in this killing. There was revulsion about this crime in Laramie from the beginning, across sectors. But there were some who tried to justify, where they say, well, there's the other side of it, that Matthew Shepard allegedly had made an advance upon one of the two men who later killed him.
So, I want to play a short clip from the film and the first voice we're going to hear is the actress who's playing the girlfriend of Aaron McKinney. This is - here it is.
(Soundbite of "The Laramie Project")
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ANNE CLOUD: (As Kristin Price) And Aaron said that a guy walked up to him and said he was gay and wanted to get with him and Russ. And Aaron is really bad about that. He doesn't like to be around gay people at all and neither does Russ. They just don't like them at all.
And so, he got aggravated with it and said that he was straight and he didn't want to have anything to do with it. And he walked off. And he said that's when him and Russ went into the bathroom and decided to pretend that they were gay and get him in the truck and rob him. They wanted to teach him a lesson not to come onto straight people.
MARTIN: So, Greg, when you, when you finally did meet with Aaron, what did he say about that?
Mr. PIEROTTI: It's difficult to parse because Aaron has said so many things. And Aaron was very clear that part of the reason that they chose Matthew was because he was gay and that hatred of homosexuals played a part in the crime that night. So, that's kind of a first for Aaron to say that so directly.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Father Roger Schmitthe. He was a campus priest at the University of Wyoming at the time Matthew Shepard was murdered over a decade ago. I'm also speaking with Greg Pierotti. He's one of the actors and writers of the play, "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," which describes the events in Laramie, since the murder.
What about the overall, Father, I want you to ask you this, the overall question of grappling with why. In the 10 years since, do you feel that the town has had a chance to grapple with the why? And what do you think that examination has yielded?
Father SCHMITTHE: I think the town did and does and I think always will. The majority of people in Laramie, I think, grieved and responded to this in a real empathic way. But you're right, there were some who - oh, I know a religious study group there who described this as the acting out the justifiable anger of God, which is a bizarre interpretation. And I think there are people in Laramie yet who just wish it would go away, let's, let's move on.
MARTIN: Greg, what about you? How has working on this project affected you?
Mr. PIEROTTI: Well, it certainly has been difficult going back to Laramie and finding a lot of the things that we found, you know, every individual has responded differently. You know, many people have been deeply moved by what happened to Matthew and have really changed in their attitudes.
But there was a large reframing of the story when we got back. You know, people really prefer to think of it as a drug deal gone bad or just a robbery gone bad, or many people do. I mean, I just don't know what it's going to take to get people to sort of be willing to own that there's homophobia in all of our cultures and that there's a different way to respond to these kinds of situations. At the same time, I feel really privileged also to have gotten to meet Aaron and to have spent time with him.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that, if I may. And, of course, it was a respectful exchange because, you know, it would have to be. You're asking him to let you into his life.
Mr. PIEROTTI: Exactly.
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you what that was like. I mean, there are some people who'd say, why do you want to talk to him? You're sitting across from a man who beat somebody to death with his bare hands and why? What was that like? And what do you think you walked away from that encounter?
Mr. PIEROTTI: I certainly walked away from it with a clearer picture of my own sort of naivete about, I don't know, the nature of humanity. I mean, I'm a Buddhist and I believe the core of my faith is that all people have human dignity.
But sitting across from Aaron and having the conversations that I did really kind of made me see that my notion of, you know, everyone having human dignity is a little bit simplistic, you know. It was very difficult at times to reach a connection with Aaron of any kind or to engage that quality in him. But at the same time, you know, I was able to connect with him as a person.
And as you say, I sought him out, you know, I made the request to speak to him. So, I do feel a certain ethical responsibility to clearly represent that he has, you know, more to him than just this monstrous crime that he committed. You know, there's what he did and there's how people feel deeply wounded. The gay community feels deeply wounded by the act. And there's my sense of responsibility to him as a person. So, I guess I'm just getting that life runs deeper and more complex than I ever imagined it.
MARTIN: Is he sorry for what he did?
Mr. PIEROTTI: He wasn't able to articulate that experience to me. But he has articulated that to Father Roger. So, maybe Father Roger could talk about that a little bit.
MARTIN: Well, Father Roger, to the degree you can say without violating any confidence, is he sorry for what he did?
Father SCHMITTHE: Yeah, I was able to get to know Aaron rather well. And you know, even his words are, you know, what is being said in public. It was robbery, but it was also a hate crime.
MARTIN: But is he sorry for what he did, not just sorry that he's now in jail for the rest of his life and that he will never see his son again, but is he sorry that he beat this young man to death?
Father SCHMITTHE: I can say this. He mentioned to me that he was sorry, and also when we would meet in Laramie, he would often pray for Matthew and for Matthew's family.
MARTIN: We're down to our last few minutes, gentlemen. So I guess I wanted to ask each of you: what would you hope people would draw from the play? Greg, do you want to start, and then Father, I'll give you the last word?
Mr. PIEROTTI: Sure. For me, I would really hope that people would draw the conclusion that cultural change, that individual change and that legislative change takes time but does occur, and I would beg people to really ponder if the treatment that gay people are receiving in the United States is fair and appropriate.
MARTIN: Father, what about you?
Father SCHMITTHE: There's something about prejudice against our brothers and sisters who are gay that's - it just seems to be much more the fabric of some people's lives, and we have to find ways of breaking down and that we have to work as a society to stop that.
MARTIN: That was Father Roger Schmitthe. He was the campus priest at the University of Wyoming at the time of Matthew Shepard's murder. He was kind enough to join us from Kansas City, Missouri. Also with us is Greg Pierotti. He is one of the actors in the play and one of the writers of "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," and he joined us by phone from Ohio. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PIEROTTI: Thank you, Michel.
Father SCHMITTHE: Thank you, Michel.
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