The Laramie Project Summary and Study Guide

Moisés Kaufman

The Laramie Project

  • 48-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features an extended summary and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by a literary scholar with a PhD in English
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The Laramie Project Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 48-page guide for “The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Homophobia and Religion.

Plot Summary

“The Laramie Project” is a critical play that addresses the brutal murder of openly gay teenager Matthew Shepard in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, an incident that sparked national debate back in 1998. Matthew Shepard was a twenty-one-year-old student at the University of Wyoming. On a cold night in October, he was robbed, tied to a cattle fence and beaten savagely, then left to die. He was found eighteen hours later by a biker. Though he was taken to a hospital, he slipped into a coma and later died, never regaining consciousness. Two young men, both locals, were later charged with the crime.

The play’s author, Moisés Kaufman, began research for the play one month after the murder. Though written as a play, “The Laramie Project” reads like a documentary, and is comprised of over 400 interviews with more than 100 residents and officials concerning Matthew’s murder. Additionally, Kaufman uses the journal entries of the participating Tectonic Theater Project volunteers, like himself, to also flesh out his narrative and attempt to reconstruct what happened on the fateful night of Matthew’s assault. As such, the play necessarily investigates the town of Laramie and its purported “live and let live” values. In doing so, it depicts and assesses the town’s culture and mindset both leading up to and following the horrific murder.

Kaufman’s theatrical group, Tectonic Theater Project, volunteered to travel to Wyoming from New York to gather in-person interviews from the residents of Laramie. Foremost in Kaufman’s mind, as some critics have pointed out, is the question of whether the arts—and theater, specifically—can have an impact on the political landscape in any capacity. By gathering the thoughts, feelings, reactions, and regrets of his own theater group’s reactions, as well as the Laramie residents, many of whom knew Matthew Shepard, and then presenting this material in play form, Kaufman attempts to show the arts’ ability to assess and critique in a meaningful and relevant fashion, like the media and other outlets.

By interviewing the townspeople, Kaufman is able to address specific issues, which in turn act as themes to the overarching play. The most notable themes are homosexuality, economics, class, religion and the place of nontraditional lifestyles in rural America. As symbolic of a larger culture, however, these themes are meant to transcend the small town of Laramie and investigate the ethos of America itself in regard to these issues/themes.

The play itself is structured into three acts. The first act is comprised of interviews with townspeople, including longtime residents. These interviews are meant to set a tone for the town of Laramie, showing how people saw their town before the murder, and how they now feel after the horrific event. Religious leaders weigh in on the crime as well, most commenting on how God does not condone homosexuality. The act ends with interviews from bartenders at the Fireside Bar, where Shepard was last seen alive as he left with the two young men accused of killing him, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Townspeople comment on how the two convicted murderers were seemingly good kids.

The second act includes media responses as news outlets descend upon the town of Laramie after the incident. The townspeople react to the attack, shocked that something so violent has happened in their town. It also includes medical updates concerning Matthew Shepard’s condition. Additionally, some residents insist on God’s hatred toward homosexuality, regardless of the attack. One resident who also appears in the first act, Jedadiah Schultz, questions his own minister’s belief that homosexuality is wrong. At the end of the act, there is one last medical update: Matthew Shepard has died.

The third act opens with a funeral being held for Matthew Shepard. The funeral is held by the Catholic Church, while Reverend Fred Phelps continues to speak on God’s clear hate for homosexuals. He says he will continue to preach God’s hate as this hate is pure, coming from God. A number of townspeople object to this attitude, and protest the Reverend’s arrival. Later, the two young men who assaulted Matthew Shepard are tried. Henderson is sentenced to life in prison. McKinney is charged with felony manslaughter, which means he could have received the death penalty. Matthew Shepard’s father, however, asks that the boy be spared death, as the healing process must begin somewhere. The judge honors this, and sentences McKinney, too, to life in prison.

The play’s themes, including the issues of prejudice and the perpetration of hate crimes, are also meant to highlight the historical context of Matthew Shepard’s murder. Given the long struggle of gay rights and identity/acceptance issues, as well as religion’s often troubling role in the fight for sexual equality, “The Laramie Project” is an important voice in the ongoing debate over gay rights, and rights in general, and how fear and prejudice can have horrific outcomes. Moreover, in Shepard’s father arguing against a death sentence, the play addresses another hot topic: the death penalty. In other words, whether or not it is justifiable to kill someone because he/she has killed another.

These issues, debates and hot topics are all weaved into the narrative to spark precisely that: in-depth debate. The play opened in March 2000, and was later made into a film (also directed by Kaufman) by HBO and Sundance Theater, thus reaching an even larger audience of the American and international public, effectively bringing its themes and the larger historical issues broadly into the public consciousness.

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