Even before “The Laramie Residency” makes its debut at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco later this month, Lenore Naxon is predicting audience reaction.
“People who saw the original ‘Laramie Project’ told me they’ve never been in a theater where, after the final curtain, people sat in stunned silence,” said Naxon, executive director of the JCC’s Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts. “That is the power of this piece.”
Documenting one of the country’s most horrific hate crimes, “The Laramie Residency” places its audience first on the streets of Laramie, Wyo., in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay men severely beaten and left to die.
It then revisits the scene 10 years later to ask — has anything changed in the town of Laramie or its residents?
“The Laramie Residency” is composed of two productions and a dialogue with theater professionals, which all take place at the JCCSF.
The series begins 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21 with the play’s co-writer and director, Moises Kaufman, in conversation with Tony Taccone, artistic director at Berkeley Rep, where the production has been staged.
Kaufman, who is Jewish, founded the New York–based Tectonic Theater Project in 1991, an award-winning company dedicated to developing innovative works based on social, political and human issues.
“The Laramie Project” takes place at 8 p.m. Oct. 22, followed by “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later — An Epilogue” at 8 p.m. Oct. 23.
In October 1998, Shepard was kidnapped and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie. Headlines swept the country about this hate crime directed at a gay man and motivated by homophobia.
Five weeks later, Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie and, over the course of the next year, conducted more than 200 interviews with people in the town.
From the interviews came “The Laramie Project,” a chronicle of the life of the town in the wake of Shepard’s murder.
The work became one of the most performed plays in the U.S. and is credited with energizing an awareness of attitudes about violence against LGBT people.
To complete “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later — An Epilogue,” Tectonic Theater Project revisited Laramie on the 10th anniversary of Shepard’s death to examine how the town and its attitudes, laws and people had changed.
In addition to staging “The Laramie Residency,” JCCSF teen program manager Alan Scher is working with several local high schools to create events and programming inspired by the play. Jewish Community High School of the Bay and Lowell High School are among the participating schools.
“Issues of social justice are always front and center,” Naxon said, referring to the seven core values that appear on a 30-foot sculpted wall in the JCC’s atrium. “We are using ‘The Laramie Residency’ as a new, first step forward toward a social justice program with teens.”
In bringing “The Laramie Residency” to the JCCSF, in a city with a lengthy history of gay rights activism, Naxon explained that she wants the audience to be moved, especially if it leads to action or advocacy.
“It can sometimes feel like we live in a bubble [in San Francisco],” she said. “Then we come to understand that what happens here is very different from the rest of the country. ‘Laramie’ reminds us of that.”
For information about “The Laramie Residency” and ticket prices, visit www.jccsf.org/arts-ideas/performances.