By Marissa Garcia

Revisiting trauma is never easy but repeatedly re-living an event and confronting the emotion that go with it is often necessary to help change hearts and minds, says Leo Cabranes-Grant a professor in the Department of Theater and Dance.

“A memorial heals by keeping a wound open,” Cabranes-Grant told a UC Santa Barbara audience last week.

He was speaking at the event “The Laramie Legacy: A Conversation with Judy Shepard.” Shepard lost her son Matthew in 1998 when he was just 21 years old and was beaten, tortured and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming—a violent act fueled by anti-gay hatred.

Before Judy Shepard’s presentation, Cabranes-Grant moderated a panel called “Twenty Years Later: Action and Remembrance,” to discuss the significance of her son’s murder and how it inspired the play “The Laramie Project,” which UCSB is now staging, directed by Eric Jorgensen, a PhD candidate in Theater and Dance. The play was brought to UCSB by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project in New York, which first developed it.  

The wound of Matthew Shepard’s death has now been open for 20 years and produced a legacy that continues today. Judy and Dennis Shepard turned every parents’ nightmare into action by establishing the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization that aims to empower diverse human beings through outreach and resource programs that fight hate and embrace acceptance.

They lobbied in Congress to strengthen the federal hate-crime law to make it a crime when a victim is targeted because of their gender, sexual orientation, or disability, adding to the previous definitions of race, color and religion. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was eventually signed into law by President Obama in 2009.

The play inspired by their son’s murder, The Laramie Project, has withstood the test of time and is believed to be one of the most performed plays in America. Members of the Tectonic Theater Project created it from interviews they did with residents of Laramie, Wyoming. It is not a story about Matthew Shepard, but instead recounts how the local community reacted to his death at the time.

From left to right, panelists Annika Speer, Kelli Coleman-Moore, and Rebecca Prather.

From left to right, panelists Annika Speer, Kelli Coleman-Moore, and Rebecca Prather.

The UCSB panel examined Shepard’s tragedy from a political, theatrical and religious point of view. Panelists were UCSB alumna Rebecca Prather, Annika Speer, a UC Riverside professor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Digital Production, and Kelli Coleman-Moore, a PhD Student in Theater and Dance at UCSB.

“We tend to a wound because we recognize that it hasn’t been healed,” said Prather who was an undergraduate at UCSB when Shepard’s life was taken.

Prather recalled a time when there was an urgent need to create safety on UCSB’s campus for people of color and the LGBTQ community. Shepard’s death sparked anger across the campus in 1998 and his vigil was held just ten days before a UC-wide walkout to demand more Ethnic, Gender and Queer studies.

Panelists said Shepard’s death reflected a societal problem that even today hasn’t been solved.

“This play has stayed with us because we’re not done with this event,” said Speer a professor at UC Riverside who was in a production of the play in 2001.

Speer said the play’s epilogue, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” changed the original context of the play as Shepard’s story shifted over time to be interpreted more as a robbery gone wrong than a hate crime due to homophobia.

This misinterpretation called for the epilogue, after which the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Wyoming and used this coda to the play as a teaching moment in a story of pain that still hasn’t healed, though it has transformed. Speer described it as holding a mirror up to ourselves to recognize that “the nature of the symbol changes as we change.”

The Laramie Project is documentary theater, a form of art that deals with humanity, compassion and empathy, she said.

Though Shepard’s murder was an act of inhumane persecution, he soon became a figure of love and acceptance as he was laid to rest at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Kelli Coleman-Moore who has studied the cathedral for years said the service felt like being in two places at once and confirmed that Shepard’s burial was one of the first times queer identities had been embraced so publicly by a church. “That is important but it’s not enough,” she said.

The panelists concluded their discussion by agreeing that there is still much work to be done.

Then Judy Shepard abandoned her originally-prepared material and, moved by the previous panelists, she confirmed and reacted to their critiques on politics, religion and Matthew’s burial.

“I’m madder now than I was 20 years ago,” said Judy Shepard. “I thought we would have made more progress by now.”

Judy Shepard accompanied by event host Eric Jorgensen, director of the current UCSB production of The Laramie Project.

Judy Shepard accompanied by event host Eric Jorgensen, director of the current UCSB production of The Laramie Project.

In a soft-spoken but powerfully articulate way, she shared the story of how Matthew’s love for the church came full circle.  She confirmed that her son’s funeral was in fact like being in two places at once–a circus and an opera–but this time there were no protestors.

Shepard told the gathering how a hateful act changed her and her husband’s lives forever. But “never in a million years” did they think that her son’s story would still resonate with people two decades later.

“This is not over by a long shot,” said Shepard. “Legally we may get there but we still have hearts and minds to change.”

Marissa Garcia is a fourth-year Sociology major and Professional Writing minor at UC Santa Barbara. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with UC Santa Barbara’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.