Monday, October 27, 2008

10 Years After Laramie

This month marks the tenth anniversary of several momentous moments. Ten years ago, I was in the midst of my first experience with touring. The Kennedy Center sent 9 actors and technicians across the country to bring enlightenment and theatrical goodies to the hinterlands, in Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I loved taking that tour, which brought me to places I would never have visited otherwise (North Dakota! Iowa! Green Bay!) It was a real actors' life, and I didn't mind that we traveled in a van rather than an airplane, and stayed at the Holiday Inn rather than the Ritz. We were a touring band of players, spreading the word.

As I look back on that period, I'm astonished that I did not know the world was changing dramatically while we were cris-crossing the nation. When your whole life is a van, a motel, and a theatre, it's easy to lose track of the outside world, even though you are in its midst. So, I completely missed the news that, in October of 1998, while we were entertaining kids from Maine to Minnesota, a young gay man in Wyoming had been lured from a small-town bar and brutally pistol-whipped about the head and body. He was then strapped to a fence in the middle of an icy field, and left to die. By a couple of "misunderstood" local boys.

The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard brought international attention to the ongoing homophobia of America, a place where all men were supposedly created equal. The event added new phrases to the national lexicon, such as "Hate Crime," and a year later, "Gay Panic," the deplorable defense strategy used by one of the monsters who perpetrated the crime.

Simultaneously with these events, the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York was prepping the world premiere of Terence McNally's Corpus Christi, an updated retelling of the Jesus story. In McNally's version, Jesus and his apostles were gay men. Word got out that the play included scenes in which the disciples engaged in orgiastic sex (untrue, there are no overtly sexual scenes in the play), and major protests were launched. The noise grew so loud that the Manhattan Theatre Club, which had previously hosted many premieres of McNally's plays, yanked the show from their season. An anti-censorship firestorm ensued, and the MTC was forced to reinstate the production, which went on amid clamorous protests from the Catholic church and others. Death threats were sent to the playwright, and when the play opened in London, a fatwa was issued against McNally by radical Muslims (why radical Muslims cared about a play which Christians believed defamed Jesus, remains a topic of debate, but McNally was warned not to travel to any Muslim state, as he would then be arrested and executed).

Audiences who braved the unruly mob outside the theatre in New York had to pass through metal detectors. To see an off-Broadway play. Welcome to America.

A revival of Corpus Christi is currently being staged in New York without protest. In Laramie, Wyoming, the fence to which Matthew Shepard was strapped for 18 hours is now gone.

Apparently the town which bred the monsters who murdered this defenseless boy has moved on. But I couldn't let this ten-year anniversary go by without notice.