The Laramie Project is a play that details the reactions of the community in Laramie, Wyoming, to the murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard. As different residents recount details of the event and reflect on the effects of the hate crime, two sentiments arise: one that sees media portrayal of the community after Shepard’s death reflect their own inklings about Laramie, and one that find it contradicts with their own vision.
Descriptions from the beginning of the play portray Laramie in a positive light, and it seems like a murder like that of Matthew Shepard could hardly have taken place in such a peaceful and friendly place. Many, like Rebecca Hilliker, believed that “you [had] the opportunity to be happy in your life here […] the sun was shining (Kaufman 4). Similarly, others like university student Jedidiah Schultz describe Laramie as “a beautiful town … [where] you can have your own identity” (7). However, since the occurrence, media coverage has forged the identity of the town of Laramie into one that is closely associated with a hate crime, now “a town defined by an accident” (7).
With recognition of Laramie propelled to the national scale, characters bring up the question: should Laramie be defined by the actions of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson? The media coverage was overwhelming and unfamiliar; Jon Peacock recounts hundreds of reporters, and how the town “[was not] used to that type of exposure” (46). It was unusual for Laramie to be scrutinized, and the intensity of such actions evoked resentful feelings from townspeople. Sergeant Hing calls the flood of news “sensationalism”, while Eileen Engen believes Laramie was “more or less maligned” by the reporters (47). Hing and Engen are frustrated with what they perceive as a biased portrayal of their community, of the press reducing what should be known about Laramie to one indelible disturbance. In a sense, these actions also serve as a way of making sure the incident is not ignored or forgotten by Laramie residents.
On the other hand, some residents align with the news stories because they feel that it helps expose their long-time discomfort with Laramie. The people of Laramie are finally forced to confront their homophobia, Tiffany Edwards thinks, because “media actually [makes] people accountable” (47). However, it is clear that some residents don’t feel accountable. At a candlelight vigil in Laramie, Zubaida Ula recounts with frustration of how someone exclaimed “C’mon guys, let’s show the world that Laramie is not the kind of a town” (57). Ula sees the obsession townspeople have with regaining Laramie’s good reputation as misguided, since they fail to acknowledge the latent homophobia present in the town was the very reason for the hate crime. Instead, the community needs to focus reforming inward before outwards.
Through interviews conducted with the residents of Laramie, Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project establish varied emotions towards media handling of Matthew Shepard’s death. Some see it as harming to Laramie’s reputation, while others believe media coverage has directed attention towards the true problem at hand—the cruelty and contradiction present in their community. Ultimately, residents must examine how they currently are as a collective, and what they should do to incite change.