Monday, September 24: a night in theatre and LGBTQ+ history.
by Alyssa Sileo
At the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, the Tectonic Theater Project and Matthew Shepard Foundation presented Laramie: A Legacy, a reading of the acclaimed play to commemorate 20 years since Matthew was stolen from the world. The artists that helped create this play stood amongst celebrities and performed this piece that has served as a channel of theatre advocacy for two decades.
Inside this theatre in New York City, I felt the safest I’ve ever felt, even though only blocks away, the hateful bigot many people call President of the United States sat in the UN General Assembly. I knew I was among my people. I was laughing and crying among warriors for justice and love. We all truly loved this play and what it stood for. We are committed to fighting for each other no matter what.
I’ve seen so many productions of Laramie, all of them because of the Laramie Project Project. (And this production is officially part of the LPP Network, too, something that is still blowing my mind.) After the show I kept on saying to my family that “this is the closest I will ever get to the original production.” Something that struck me about this performance was seeing the rows of brown chairs onstage. During the early days of the LPP and my own first production of Laramie in high school, I remember pouring over pictures of the original production, wishing nothing more than to get in a time machine and see the show performed by those went to Laramie and heard these words. I recall images of the Amazing Grace sequence―the black umbrellas and people standing, facing downstage left, with arms spread as angel wings. And on Monday night, I saw these two things among many other tableaus matching with moments of the first groundbreaking iteration of this production.
And what rang in my mind, more than my own theatre-geek fascination, was something akin to what Moisés Kaufman told the audience after the performance: that these conversations continue to be relevant. That these artists are so loyal to the fight of erasing hate that they will continue story-telling for a cause. That these are the most admirable people, those who know they power they hold to make a difference.
It helped me realize, in a time in which my own hope in my own advocacy had been dwindling, that if I want change, I better never stop fighting. Even if my fight is something as small and as personal as continuing to love this play and striving to share it with as many people as I can.
I met so many incredible figures after the show and during the reception. I met Reggie Fluty, who gave me a huge hug when I told her I played her mom two years ago. (She exclaimed “I miss her so much!” I feel the same way.) I got to thank Asia Kate Dillon for fighting for the non-binary community (and hear them say the line “MY PARENTS!” which has become such a Laramie meme for my high school buddies). I got to tell Amanda Gronich that I wanted to be a dramaturg one day. I gave out LPP pins to Adam Rippon and Anderson Cooper, and I got hear Billy Porter perform Fathern Roger’s monologue, one of the pieces that means the most to me
I got to say hi to Dennis and Judy Shepard again, which pretty much brought me to tears, since I was unsure when I was going to see them again. I got to thank Leigh Fondakowski for her work and smile at Moisés Kaufman (but I didn’t introduce myself, I was so nervous!)
And this whole audience experienced Dennis deliver the address he made to the court during the trial of Aaron McKinney. I recall so clearly imagining this speech in his voice while backstage during my own run of Laramie. Hearing this on Monday was nothing short of surreal and profound.
Dennis told my family once that he feels as though everyone is his kids. I believe that’s what makes this Foundation’s work so powerful — that marginalized populations are fought for and supported with the fierceness of a family’s love.
I cannot tell this story without sharing that I almost didn’t make it to this event. It was only on the Saturday before that my Monday rehearsal was canceled and my acting class was shortened by a crucial hour.
I keep on feeling the spirit of Matthew within my life, which leads me to never give up hope.
I want to do what Tectonic and MSF does. I want to create a life in which I am working with a beloved community to save lives.
Thanks to the efforts of the Tectonic Theater Project and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Thanks to the artists that refused to let this event recede into the past, and thanks to the family and friends that held onto the light of a remarkable and inimitable person.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the cannon.