The Laramie Project Review – A Real Life Murder through Interviews

Cast of THE LARAMIE PROJECT - Photo by Holly Gable
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First produced at the Denver Center for Performing Arts in February 2000, THE LARAMIE PROJECT moved to New York City before performing in Laramie, Wyoming, in November 2002. THE LARAMIE PROJECT tells the story of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student in Laramie. THE LARAMIE PROJECT was the brainchild of Moises Kaufman, leader of the Tectonic Theater Company, a brave group of theater professionals who journeyed to Laramie to find out what happened and how it affected the entire community through hundreds of interviews, journals, and written articles.

Cast of THE LARAMIE PROJECT – Photo by Holly Gable

In Laramie, Rebecca Hilliker (Nene Makinoda), the head of the theater department at the University of Wyoming, connected the group with people to interview so that the audience would get a sense of who Matthew was according to the people who knew and loved him. The company also used interviews to find out the town’s general attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people at the time of Matthew’s murder in 1998. The group then studied what happened on the night of Matthew’s murder. Apparently, Matthew had been drinking a beer alone at a local bar when he met Aaron McKinney (Isaiah Griffin) and Russell Henderson (Ethan Winfield); he left the bar with them around 11:30 p.m. The next morning Aaron Kreifels (Charlotte Hamill), a university student, found Matthew, badly beaten and tied to a fence but still breathing. Reggie Fluty (Lux Amaya), first responder and police officer, was exposed to significant amounts of Matthew’s blood during the investigation; hospital tests revealed that Matthew had HIV; happily, Fluty was later found to be disease-free.

The Courtroom – THE LARAMIE PROJECT – Photo by Holly Gable

McKinney and Henderson were subsequently arrested and charged with Matthew’s beating – and later murder. As the news of the crime spread, it became a national story, attracting reporters from over the entire country. After weeks in the hospital ICU, Matthew died. McKinney and Henderson initially pled not guilty but later changed their pleas to guilty. Since this was a death penalty case, the crime became even more complex and publicized. The final disposition of the case and how this occurred are detailed in THE LARAMIE PROJECT, which delved into issues surrounding Matthew’s funeral, the courthouse trial, and the changes to Laramie itself.

Cast of THE LARAMIE PROJECT – Photo by Holly Gable

THE LARAMIE PROJECT is directed by Lee Margaret Hanson and Mara Palma, who do a great job of corralling the 20 Culver City High School students (and two adult professionals including Bill Salyers, who powerfully portrays Matthew’s father) into a cogent and moving whole. Each talented cast member plays multiple roles and aces them all. Kudos also to the production team, who do an excellent job with sets, lighting, and sound. A little mentoring and a lot of nascent talent mark this production. It is hard to believe that this is not a full-fledged professional presentation.

THE LARAMIE PROJECT is a joint project with the Center Theatre Group (CTG) and presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. CTG is part of CCUSD’s Front and Center Theatre Collaborative, a unique partnership of six local theater companies that coordinate theater programming across the entire CCUSD district. Founded in 2010, the Collaborative brings together teaching artists from professional theater groups and local partners to give young people exposure to workplace learning and theater arts, media, and the entertainment community. THE LARAMIE PROJECT is an excellent example of their meaningful work.

THE LARAMIE PROJECT runs from November 2 to November 5, 2023, with performances at 7 p.m. on 11/2, 11/3, and 11/4 and at 2 p.m. on 11/5. The Kirk Douglas is located at 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. Tickets are $25. For information and reservations, go online.


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