More than 15 years have passed since the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. — but his name and legacy certainly haven’t faded from the American consciousness.
Shepard was a 21-year-old gay college student who was abducted by two men on Oct. 7, 1998. The men tied Shepard to a fence and ferociously beat him. He died days later.
The nationwide outrage over Shepard’s death eventually led to landmark hate crime legislation to more effectively prosecute those who perpetrate violence upon people based on sexual orientation, nationality, gender or gender identity.
Tonight students at Atwater and Buhach high schools will perform a theatrical production displaying the range of emotions felt by Laramie residents in the immediate aftermath of Shepard’s murder.
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The play, “The Laramie Project,” opens at 7 p.m. tonight at the Buhach High theater. It also runs 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is $7.
The play came to fruition after members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie a month after Shepard’s murder. The group conducted interviews with the people of the town. From the interviews, the theater project wrote the play, which they later made into a movie for HBO, according to the Tectonic Theater Project’s website.
The piece has been seen by more than 30 million people around the country.
The play was directed by C. Alan Bettis, film and theater arts instructor at Buhach High. Bettis said the audience never sees Shepard portrayed in the play, but the audience sees the shock waves caused by his death.
Those reactions come from many different sides. Some of those perceptions are uncomfortable to watch on stage, dealing with raw themes like homophobia, tolerance and hate. However, Bettis said the play is an excellent example of “persuasive theater” — which causes the audience members to change their behavior and attitudes.
"It's an interesting study of how one event can affect a city," Bettis said. "It's not a one-sided story whatsoever."
Bettis, who graduated from Merced High in 1977, said the themes discussed in the play would have been considered taboo and completely off-limits in the classroom not so long ago.
As more young people have become enlightened about social issues, however, Bettis said the community has become more accepting of people from different backgrounds. "For a long time our community wasn’t ready for (this play), now we feel this is the time for them to see it," Bettis said.
Gunner Joachim, 18, a Buhach High senior and the play’s stage manager, said it’s very important for young people to see the play. Joachim, who also serves as president of the campus’ Gay-Straight Alliance Club, said he also hopes the play contributes to a safer environment for all students. "No one should feel unsafe in the community," Joachim said.