Remembering Matthew: 20 years later, Shepard's murder still resonates

FARGO -- Craig Hella Johnson remembers exactly where he was 20 years ago when he heard the news. He was in San Francisco working with the vocal group Chanticleer when one of the singers, Matt Alber, came in weeping. Johnson consoled his colleague...
The stage production of "Considering Matthew Shepard." Photo by Marlee Crawford, Ole Miss Communications / Special to The Forum

FARGO - Craig Hella Johnson remembers exactly where he was 20 years ago when he heard the news.

He was in San Francisco working with the vocal group Chanticleer when one of the singers, Matt Alber, came in weeping. Johnson consoled his colleague who explained that a young gay man was found beaten, left for dead and tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo. The singer explained that they shared a first name. The victim's name was Matthew Shepard.

"Like millions of people around the world, it broke my heart," Johnson says of the brutal attack and subsequent death of Shepard on Oct. 12, 1998.

The composer was moved to make something beautiful and meaningful from the senseless hate crime. It took him nearly two decades, but in 2016 he debuted the choral work "Considering Matthew Shepard," a three-part oratorio.

Johnson and Conspirare, the vocal group based in Austin, Texas, bring the three-part oratorio to Fargo on Friday night, Oct. 12, as part of the North Dakota State University Choral Symposium. Among the 30 voices will be Alber's.

Johnson wasn't alone in wanting to productively work through the grief following Shepard's death. Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie to interview residents after the tragedy. The resulting "The Laramie Project" will be produced the following two weekends by the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre.

The two productions coincide with the 20th anniversary of Shepard's death, but also come as hate crimes have been on the rise for four years, according to a study by The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.

Johnson says the symposium's theme, "Relevance: Creating Community through the Choral Art," is particularly timely.

A new passion

"I think this is a story that affected everyone," Johnson says of Shepard's death. "If you're a sentient being, this is a heartbreaking event that happened. Certainly as a gay man I felt that there was a way that Matt's story manifests our greatest fear of name-calling and bullying and where that hate can lead."

Johnson was born in Brainerd, Minn., and was raised on the Iron Range when he wasn't visiting his grandmother in Fargo. He experienced his fair share of cruelty as a child and when he heard of Shepard, it opened old wounds.

"I felt viscerally like I needed to respond, but it took me a long, long time to do anything about it," he says.

Working on Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and "St. John Passion" prompted him to address the tragedy in a similar way.

He "curated" the libretto from interviews with Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis, Shepard's friends and even friends of his murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Leslea Newman's poetry collection, "October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard," was "fundamental" to the libretto, he says.

Perhaps most effectively, he uses Shepard's own voice, or rather entries from his journal, sung by Conspirare.

The work opens capturing the land and the spirit of the American West and ends with Shepard's final moments in this world before his ascension.

"Thus 'Considering Matthew Shepard' became much more than just one man's story. In some respects, it was everyone's story, a reflection on human travails and heavenly aspirations," stated a recent review in the Chicago Tribune. "The comparative simplicity of the score meant not only that it welcomed all listeners but surely that students and amateur choirs around the world will be singing this music for generations to come."

Johnson knows students today are too young to remember Shepard's death, but it still resonates with them.

"They also know this type of thing is happening in our world still. They're really tuned into that," he says. "It might not be that Matthew Shepard they've heard about, but they've sure heard of other hate crimes, some having to do with race, some having to do with gender. They get it. They're right there. It's not a stretch at all."

Building community

Shepard's death was an indelible moment for Johnson, but Natalie Novacek, the director of FMCT's "The Laramie Project," was only 14 when it happened. She learned about it in college.

While the play centers around Shepard's death, it explores the effect it had on the people of Laramie.

"The complicated thing is that it's not about Matthew Shepard; it's about the community. It's about what happened and how the community changed," she says.

Rather than back-and-forth dialogues on the stage, "Laramie" is mostly monologues exploring each character's reaction, from those who mourn Shepard's death to those who have come to protest the funeral, believing he sinned as a gay man.

"Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project did a great job presenting all sides," she says. "There are no heroes or villains. Everyone is complicated. This isn't a fairy tale; it's real life."

That real-life take made directing this production an appealing prospect.

"I'm more interested in how the communities have been affected over the last 20 years, how much has changed," she says.

And how much has changed?

"We made great strides as a country in equality for the LGBT community, and now those great strides are walking backwards," she says.

Still, she stresses that the play isn't political and that there's no heavy-handed message, but that no matter how you vote, the takeaway is making a connection.

"For me, theater isn't about preaching to the choir. It's about all the diverse voices starting a conversation," she says.

Sometimes, that conversation happens between actors and directors.

"Every night, one of my actors will come in whipped up about what's happening in the world today. Then they say, 'I need to make something,'" she says. "This has lit a fire under this group to make a space to share the things that are hard to look at."

If you go

What: "Considering Matthew Shepard"

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12

Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU campus

Info: Tickets from $10 to $25;

If you go

What: "The Laramie Project"

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, and Saturday, Oct. 13, 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18-20

Where: The Stage at Island Park, 333 Fourth St. S., Fargo

Info: Tickets from $13 to $23; or 701-235-6778