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January 30, 2014

'The Laramie Project' opens tonight

A Cooperstown production of the “The Laramie Project,” a play inspired by a brutal hate crime and its aftermath over a decade ago, opens today.

“I think it’s important that people know the story,” said Rebecca Burk-Sciallo, co-director of the Cooperstown production of “The Laramie Project.” “There are hate crimes happening every day in the world.”

In 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay, 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was offered a ride home by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Instead, they drove Shepard to a remote location where he was robbed, tortured and pistol whipped, after which he was left tied to a fence. Shepard was found eighteen hours later in a coma and died of his injuries after five days. 

At McKinney’s trial, it was revealed that hatred of Shepard’s sexual orientation was a motivator in the crime. McKinney and Henderson were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and Shepard’s case became a rallying cry for supporters of hate-crimes legislation. 

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2009 and expands the federal definition of a hate crime to include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability, is partly named after him.

In the aftermath of Shepard’s murder, playwright Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to interview members of the community. These interviews, which number over 200, along with the company members’ journal entries and excerpts from McKinney’s trial form the basis of “The Laramie Project.” Premiering in 2000, it has been performed frequently and world-wide.

“It really is a collection of monologues and moments from the actual people who lived in Laramie at the time,” said Burk-Sciallo.

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