In 1998, a gaggle of little-known New York theater people brought their tape recorders and their earnest, passionate incredulity to the Wyoming town of Laramie.
It was just weeks after University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard -- 5'2", about 100 pounds, 21 years old and gay -- was found tied to a fence on the outskirts of town, beaten almost beyond recognition and nearly dead. As a policewoman famously noticed then, the only part of his face not covered in blood was the path made from his tears.
Shepard never came out of his coma and died five days later.
Fifteen years later, many of those same theater folk -- that is, members of the Tectonic Theater -- will be at the BAM Harvey Theater Tuesday through Feb. 24 with "The Laramie Project Cycle," one of the most remarkably effective pieces of theater activism ever created.
More precisely, this is two pieces. The first, and best known, is "The Laramie Project," the play created by the group from more than 200 interviews and from their own journals written during months of visits to the town. (According to the company website, this part, which HBO made into a movie in 2002, is one of the most performed plays in America.)
The other part is "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later." In 2009, a year after the group went back to Laramie, the script had simultaneous readings in 100 cities around the country -- including high schools, universities and professional theater companies. But this part, the epilogue, has never before been staged by the Tectonic. Also, the whole cycle has never before been done together. Parts 1 and 2 can be seen on consecutive evenings, and in weekend marathons expected to run five hours.
Leigh Fondakowski, head writer from the beginning and BAM co-director with founder Moisés Kaufman, says Part 2 will be staged "basically as an extension or a transformation of the staging of the original."
The story behind the epilogue could make a drama all its own. "The idea wasn't to write another full play," she said during a recent phone interview. "We just thought it would be an update."
When they got to Laramie to do a small anniversary piece, however, they found that things had taken "a very dramatic turn. A lot of people were saying this wasn't a hate crime," she said, shock still audible in her voice. President Barack Obama had just signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The company and Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother and head of the influential Matthew Shepard Foundation, were even invited to the White House for the signing.
But still the local Laramie newspaper ran an anniversary editorial "saying it wasn't a hate crime," says Fondakowski. "They were saying it was a robbery gone bad. Crazy rumors were so pervasive we decided to write another play -- about how history is written, how stories get told and shaped, and how people react to them."
Denial from Laramie's younger generation is what really got to her. "Working on the first play," she recalled, "we weren't surprised to encounter a homophobic response. As a queer woman, it was hard to listen to, but I wasn't going to argue.
"But seeing how the facts had faded for the young people now, I felt I had to tell them how Matthew was beaten between 19 and 27 times on his head with a gun . . . If the first part has audiences leaving the theater feeling a sense of hope, the second part shows how people react to the tragedy, how they try to push it away."
I recently asked Kaufman whether theater can change the world. "Of course it can," he said, mentioning theater's ability "to talk to us about society, politics, interpersonal relationships. But above all," he paused for emphasis, "theater can talk to us about our most private selves, at the most personal level. That's the conversation in which change occurs."
Of course, no theater person would claim credit for the astounding speed with which attitudes -- marriage equality, gays in the military -- have changed recently. "I am 43," said Fondakowski, "I feel right on the cusp of the end of the Stonewall era and the new generation. When I came out, we were just trying to survive, to have a safe place. Civil rights? Unthinkable. In my early 20s, I was fully convinced, 'Not in my lifetime.' "
"The Laramie Project" is still banned in some high schools. Ugly demonstrations, which began with an infamous Baptist leader from Kansas carrying "God Hates Fags" sign at Matthew's funeral, are hardly unexpected. But the two murderers are serving double life terms.
And Fondakowski, who has since interviewed victims of the BP oil spill for a theater piece and published a book of interviews with survivors of the Jonestown massacre, has faith in the power of "complex and nuanced" nonfiction storytelling.
While working on "Laramie," she says she and the actor/collaborators are constantly asking themselves, " 'Is this too didactic? Are we editorializing too much?' I don't think we set out to make a political piece. This is more about exposing the way the country's thinking and feeling -- on all sides."
And if art can't change the world, well, the world is certainly changing the arts.
Tickets are $40-$200 for both parts on consecutive evenings or weekend marathons, BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., 718-636-4100; bam.org.