It was — and still is — one of the most shocking hate crimes of all time. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was beaten and left to die late one night by two young men he met in a bar in Laramie. His subsequent death on October 12, 1998, stunned the world.
Shepard’s life is the basis for Considering Matthew Shepard, a highly acclaimed multimedia choral piece that will be staged June 29 at 8 p.m. at the Byers Theatre in Sandy Springs. Coro Vocati, a 10-year-old Atlanta chamber choir made up of professional singers, will present it.
Although a concert take of Craig Hella Johnson’s show had its Southeastern premiere two years ago in Atlanta via a collaboration with the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music, this is the fully staged version, with projections and a professional chorus, being staged in Georgia for the first time. The full version began last year on the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death.
John Dickson, Coro Vocati’s artistic director, is directing. Describing the show is something of a challenge. Considering Matthew Shepard isn’t really a musical, nor is it a choral concert, an opera or an operetta. “It falls in that very grey area of what is professionally called an oratorio,” Dickson says. An oratorio is a stage work that typically combines solo singers, a choir and an orchestra. This production utilizes various forms of music — choral, country, jazz and gospel — as well as texts, visuals and passages from Shepard’s journal in a manner that feels modern.
According to Dickson, Considering Matthew Shepard has the capacity to change the art form. “What Hamilton did in the area of musical theater — exploding this new genre or style of Broadway musical — I think this work has the potential of [doing so], moving beyond to a style that has evolved into such an eclectic mix. It’s a new alternative to the classical choir ensemble.”
As part of his research, Dickson spoke to Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, and also had conversations with the Matthew Shepard Foundation. He felt an obligation to get it all right.
Playing the role of Matthew Shepard is Jamie Clements, a tenor soloist. The part is big shoes for the performer. “It’s a great honor to be able to portray him, and deal with all the thoughts and feelings he had, but it’s a bit daunting as well,” Clements says. “His murder was well known, and he became such a public figure, not of his own doing. Anytime you are depicting someone in that scenario, it’s a weight. For me, the heaviest has been looking at what his life could have been. You see in the text of the show a lot of his words from his journal about who he is and what he thinks he will become. All that was interrupted.”
A song in the piece called “Ordinary Boy” really speaks to Clements. “Matthew went camping, fishing, hunting — he was like any other boy growing up. One of the most powerful things about this work is that it calls out that most people don’t want to be special — they just want to be themselves. Matthew became an icon, but he was just living his life.”
In preparing for the role, Clements didn’t need to do much research. Like Shepard, Clements grew up gay in a rural area. He didn’t come out until he was in his late 20s. “Unlike Matthew, though, I have been fortunate to continue living,” he says.
Alison Mann plays two characters — a deer representing the doe that laid at Shepard’s feet all night, and the fence that Shepard died on. The fence has three iterations. “One is enjoying life in a beautiful countryside, and another encapsulates the pain of it holding and cradling Matthew all night,” Mann says. “I also play the fence a week later after his murder. There’s this whole idea of standing tall and firm and allowing others to come and use me as an inanimate object to express their grief, to lay photos and flowers, be something to ground them in their anger and hurt. One of my favorite lines that the fence says is that ‘I don’t mind being a shrine.’ While it was a horrific act, at least the fence can be a place that people come to for solace.”
Unlike Clements, however, who feels a kinship with Shepard, Mann had to do research. The incident happened when she was a child, and she did not have an adult perspective on what was going on. Yet, she is fully aware of the significance now, and the show has opened her eyes even more. “Seeing the visual images here and following what happened after, especially with Westboro Baptist Church — how beautiful is it now that on the 20th anniversary of his death that Matthew’s ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral?”
The performance takes place during Pride Month as well as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. When Dickson decided to put this on his agenda last July, he knew this was ideal timing. He is working with Be THE Voice, a nonprofit organization helping students find their voice, for the show. He has also invited high schools from across the metro Atlanta area, as well as members of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus and OurSong, to sing one of the emotional final numbers, “All of Us.”
Dickson knew he could not perform this without the support of the local LGBTQ community, but he hopes it has a broader reach. “It’s not just a gay issue,” he says. “If people see this just as that, they have missed the reason.”