By Paul R. Tetreault
Director, Ford’s Theatre
Ford’s Theatre is perhaps best known for a tragic act of political hatred taken to an unjustifiable extreme. It was here that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln just days after the Civil War’s end. But today, Ford’s Theatre has been redeemed as the place where Lincoln’s legacy of tolerance and equality lives on, given voice through initiatives such as The Lincoln Legacy Project.
When we began The Legacy Project three years ago, I knew we needed to include The Laramie Project as part of our exploration of hate and intolerance in America. The story of Matthew Shepard—a young gay man murdered in a brutal hate crime—had a seismic impact on this country. In many ways, it was a watershed moment, opening America’s eyes to the brutality and intolerance suffered so often by “the other.”
Following Matthew’s murder, the members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to interview people from the town. Those interviews and the Tectonic team’s own reactions and experiences formed the play, which endeavors to capture the ethos of a time and place but ends up capturing so much more: a community stunned by violence and desperately trying to transcend it. That struggle for transcendence can be felt most poignantly at the end of the play, which features the words of Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard. At the sentencing hearing for Aaron McKinney, one of Matthew’s murderers, Dennis speaks with anger and sadness but also with humility and mercy, expressing his desire to see good come out of evil. It is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring.
Through our production of the play, many of us have had a chance to meet Dennis and Matthew’s mom, Judy. Their story is one of tremendous courage and strength. They have taken an unfathomable personal loss and turned it into an opportunity to demand—and inspire—change. Building on Matthew’s ideals and beliefs, they created the Matthew Shepard Foundation to encourage respect for human difference and dignity, to raise awareness and open dialogue, and to promote positive change. Their lives and work remind me of Lincoln’s words from his second inaugural, which first inspired The Lincoln Legacy Project: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
It has been fifteen years since Matthew died, but his story still reverberates. Great strides have been made—The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was eventually signed in 2009, thanks in large part to the Shepards’ efforts. But hate continues, and lives are still shattered. In our capital city alone, 81 hate crimes were committed last year, the majority based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Our exploration of the issues raised by this play will take multiple forms. In a series of free Monday night events, we will discuss hate crimes in America and the activism they have engendered. We’ll present two readings of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, an epilogue investigating how Laramie and its residents have changed since Matthew’s death. And across the street, in our Center for Education and Leadership, we are exhibiting Not Alone: The Power of Response, which features a selection of letters sent to the Shepard family in order to explore the themes of empathy, community response and personal responsibility. You can find a schedule for all related events on the Ford’s Theatre website.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s great gifts to us was the Union: a country that, as he saw it, was more united by our commonalities than divided by differences. His vision was of a country made stronger by diversity and by a democratic process that hammered out ideas in an effort to form a more just and equal society. I am humbled and honored to present the important story of Matthew Shepard as part of The Lincoln Legacy Project at Ford’s Theatre.
Paul R. Tetreault is the director of Ford’s Theatre, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Ford’s launched “The Lincoln Legacy Project” in September 2011 with a production of “Parade,” about the Leo Frank lynching in which anti-Semitism played a large part. The project continued in 2012 with a production of “Fly,” featuring the powerful story of the Tuskegee Airmen and their fight against racism at home and abroad. This year’s production of “The Laramie Project” will run September 27-October 27.
Photos by Scott Suchman