The set evokes my stark image of a Wyoming autumn on the high prairie. Risers overlap to several heights and simple block stools provide seating, and at every entrance there is the fence — the fence of rough wood on which Matthew Shepard spun out his last conscious moments.
The play set focuses — forces you to focus — on the dialogue, message and meaning of The Laramie Project, the opening offering of the Eastern New Mexico University’s Theater and Drama Department. The set reflects the stark, black and white questions posed by the actors, written in sharp and spare letters across our collective conscience.
How can we sink to this? How can we justify this? Is Lord of the Flies reality, after all?
Are we burying our heads in the sand? Is the potential for violence — unreasoning, mindless violence — lurking in each of us, waiting to be tapped? The actors pose the questions the audience must answer, perhaps in a mirror we do not like to face, a mirror that reveals us as both killer and victim.
You may remember Matthew, around whom this play was constructed. He was the Wyoming college student who, in 1998, was beaten and left tied to a fence in Laramie for the simple reason that he was gay. What dark fears or pathetic demons drove his tormentors to carry out this hate crime on another human being?
I remember that Matthew was diminutive; somewhere under 5-foot-4 inches and hovering just over 100 pounds. I remember this as a clear fact, mentioned in the play, because I learned early, tutored by my father’s belt … you do not abuse those smaller than you. To victimize the small and weak is cowardice in extremis.
The boy was killed brutally because he was gay. This we call a hate crime. But isn’t murder always a crime born of hate? The young actors wring out emotion, portraying events that revolve around the brutalizing of a peer, a fellow young adult, at the hands of two other young adults.
The spoken words vibrate randomly from person to person, actors shifting characters as they go, taking on the personae of actual Laramie residents and the researchers who pulled this drama together. The questions posed are larger than any individual. When will we, as humans, move beyond blind fear and hatred of those who differ from ourselves?
One final reality strikes. Whether by accident or design, the fence blocks the exit. I must go over it, or around it. In either case, I cannot ignore it. I must confront it before I can re-enter my safe, comfortable world. It becomes a rite of passage, a mirror reflecting several facets of myself.
Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and an instructor at Eastern New Mexico University. He can be contacted at