The last events held on campus before virtual learning: ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ oratorio

Due to policy changes concerning large gatherings, there was only one showing of the oratorio

Jin Ni

Washington and Lee University Singers presented “Considering Matthew Shepard” the weekend of March 13 in the Lenfest Center for the Arts.

Due to concerns about the coronavirus and changes in university policy prohibiting gatherings of more than 100 people, Saturday and Sunday performances for the show were cancelled.

But the show had to go on.

And on Friday, March 13, it did. More than 278 tickets were sold for the first, last and only performance of “Considering Matthew Shepard” by the Washington and Lee University Singers.

“I cried during many of the movements,” said Keren Katz, ‘22, who sings Soprano 1 in the choir. “I was lucky that I wasn’t in the front for some of the parts.”

Many of the performers on Friday night agreed. As they sang, danced and narrated the moving story of Matthew Shepard, Mackie Benson, ‘21, said they all poured their hearts and souls into it.

“We had just gotten the email from President Dudley at about 7:30,” Benson said. “Dr. Lynch saw our faces and walked out of the room to give us a few moments to collect ourselves. But then we had to go onstage and give it our all.”

In October 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay, 21-year-old student, was brutally tortured, beaten and set on fire before being left to die on a fencepost.

The tragedy shocked Laramie, Wyoming and the United States. For days afterwards, headlines detailing his death were splashed across newspapers around the nation. Vigils were held in his honor, and two two men convicted of killing him, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were sentenced to life in prison.

“Considering Matthew Shepard” is an hour-and-a-half-long oratorio that follows the tragedy, local and national responses to it, and its impact.

“It was so, so beautiful,” Katana Evans, ‘22, said. “All the singers did such a great job, and the message is one that is so important for our campus community to hear.”

The show had been advertised on campus for over a week, and members of the University Singers had been rehearsing since August to bring it to Lexington. Shane Lynch, the director of choral activities, planned the oratorio for more than two years.

Lynch first saw “Considering Matthew Shepard” performed at Louisiana State University in 2017 at the National Collegiate Choral Competition.

“I went to it, almost by accident,” Lynch said. “But I had known Matthew Shepard’s story for a long time. I’d grown up in Montana, and my wife grew up in Wyoming. We had just gotten married in August of 1998 and we were living just across the border. We had actually just been Laramie visiting one of her friends before the weekend everything happened. We knew people that knew Matt and we knew people that knew his killers. So when we saw the piece, it was enormously powerful.”

During Washington Break, the choir went on a one-week retreat to Colorado to work on the multimedia performance and immerse themselves within the story. They also performed in Richmond and Washington, D.C.

They also had plans to go to Wyoming, but snowstorms in Colorado stopped them from making it to Shepard’s hometown.

“The piece has us focus on a lot of very human elements about ourselves and the people around us,” Pamela Steimel, ‘22, said. “It’s raw and dark and deep, and sometimes, that made it hard to perform.”

On March 12, Judy and Dennis Shepard spoke at an open forum in memory of their son. For more than 20 years, they have advocated for LGBTQ+ rights by speaking throughout the United States and the world and by starting The Matthew Shepard Foundation and The Laramie Project.

Their advocacy work led to the passage of the first LGBTQ+ hate crimes law: The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Act in 2009. The law was signed by then President Obama to define and adequately help states investigate and penalize hate crimes.

But Matthew’s parents said the work still isn’t done.

“There are four and a half states without hate crime laws. Wyoming is one of them. And even in states where are hate crime laws, there are laws to protect everyone from job discrimination or wage gaps. So I would encourage all of you to use your abilities to make this a better place for you and everybody else around you,” Dennis Shepard said. “As for Wyoming? I can’t wait for the dinosaurs to show up and take it back in time with them.”

Lynch said he felt that it was important to bring this show on campus, given both its message and how it connected with Washington and Lee’s Strategic Plan. He pushed forward despite receiving mixed reactions from the Lexington community, including two threatening encounters.

He recounted one incident in which he was approached by a member of the Lexington community at the LGBTQ+ Pride Festival in Hopkins Green and told to watch his back.

Lynch said at the time, he took it as the threat it was meant to be. But he also recognized it as part of the job.

“I had a conversation with Jason Marsden, the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation,” Lynch said. “One of the first things he said was that was our job, and how we help the movement was just to be nice. And some people just aren’t nice.”

Historically, “Considering Matthew Shepard” and The Laramie Project have often faced picketing and protests. At Matthew Shepard’s funeral, the Westboro Baptist Church showed up in the middle of a massive snowstorm to protest his funeral.

“There was a lot of soul-searching when Matt Shepard died,” Lynch said. “For some, it meant they had a revelation about what it meant to be human and gay in America. For others, it just gave them more permission to hate.”

But at a time like now, as panic and a global pandemic sweep the globe, Lynch said he hoped that the message of “Considering Matthew Shepard” would resonate more than ever.

“I am hopeful that it can maybe just allow people to come together for a brief moment before we are all pushed far, far apart,” Lynch said. “I think all of those initial goals for it are still there, of spreading love and acceptance and kindness. But now there’s an entirely vital secondary goal for it. And we can spend time being upset about it, or we can take it as a blessing that we can do at least tonight.”