IN OCTOBER 1998 Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Five weeks later, Moisés Kaufman, then known only for the surprise smash “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” began interviewing members of the town. Over the course of the next year, he and his Tectonic Theater Project created the work “The Laramie Project,” a chronicle of the life of the town in the aftermath of the murder.
“There was a polarization that took place in the National conversation that led to a) an oversimplification of vastly complicated ideas, like prejudice, class issues, gender issues and b) many bigoted people being allowed to take center stage, as the media seemed to find it necessary to find two sides in a debate about homosexuality,” Kaufman reported after reprising the play, which has become one of the most produced work in contemporary American theater. “Our goal was to find the story of the people of Laramie in their own words.”
Theatre Incognita will stage “The Laramie Project” for two performances at the Community School of Music and Arts in downtown Ithaca. Performances take place at 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday, February 10 and 11th. Nine student actors from Cornell, Ithaca College and Ithaca High School join eleven actors from the local community to bring to life the nearly 70 characters who make up the voices of the town as it reacts to the murder of one of its own, a young gay man named Matthew Shepard.
Local favorites and Incognita vets R.M. Fury (“American Buffalo”) and Kit Wainer (“The Dodgson Girls”) are joined by newcomer Nathan Shinagawa, Tompkins County legislator and Guthrie hospital administrator. Shinagawa will play the role of Rulon Stacey, the CEO of the hospital where Matt spent his final days.
Students in the cast include Sarah Perry, Hillary True-Palmer and A.J. Wolbrum from Ithaca College; Nathalie Berman, Danny Bernstein, Alejandro Ruiz, Jesse Turk and Erin Wagner from Cornell; and Kevin Hilgartner from Ithaca High School. Rounding out the cast are Eric Kofi Acree, Payal Ballaya, Erik Bjarnar, Sherron Brown, Junito Cubero, Darryle Johnson, Carolina Osorio Gil and Kathryn Russell.
Well-known Ithaca musician John Simon will provide live musical accompaniment, and Theatre Incognita’s artistic director Ross Haarstad directs.
All profits will go to local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth programs. Tickets are $10 in advance through Ticket Center Ithaca (273-4497 or (800) 28-ITHACA), or online at ithacaevents.com. They will be available at the door for $15. Visit www.theatreincognita.org for info.