A Look into Considering Matthew Shepard
Considering Matthew Shepard, this year’s Bentley performance, tells the heart-wrenching story of Matthew Shepard, the victim of a tragic anti-gay hate crime that took place in Wyoming in 1998. Performed by the University Singers and members of the University Orchestra, this deeply moving piece takes the audience through a journey of mixed and complex emotions.
The piece begins by describing who Matthew Shepard was as a person and reveals a theme central to the work: that Matthew was “just an ordinary boy living an ordinary life, so worth living.” Part of what makes Matthew’s story so tragic is that he could have been any one of us. Duck Bracey ‘20, the staging director for Considering Matthew Shepard, remarks that they “mourned the loss of this person [they] never knew, but somehow felt this deep connection to…[this work] serves as a painful reminder that Matt was murdered because he wanted to be himself.”
On October 6th, 1998, Matthew Shepard was lured out into the middle of nowhere by two men, tied to a fence, and beaten to death. Craig Hella Johnson, the composer, made the creative choice to personify the fence, giving a voice to the last thing that Matthew felt. This solo in particular is sung by Jake Burnett ‘17, the only singer in the performance who is not a current member of the choir. Dr. Shane Lynch, director of the choral program, said he felt it was important to bring in “someone older who could handle the vocal challenges of the piece” as well as someone “who was part of the University Singers family.”
As the piece moves on through the story of what happened to Matthew, a particularly hard movement is one where the choir regurgitates the hateful words of the Westboro Baptist Church, who protested at Matthew’s funeral. Though it is incredibly hard to hear and perform, it would be an injustice to not include the movement within the whole work. The movement immediately following also shows anger, but from the other side of the fence: those who organized candlelight vigils, “moved to silently speak for life over death, love over hate, light over darkness.”
The movement “We Are All Sons” brings the tenors and basses together to portray the “stoicism and rugged individualism” that was expected of young men in the West during that time. Nick Mauer ‘20 reflects that learning about Matthew Shepard’s story “required [him] to reflect on [his] own upbringing as a young man from the American Midwest, and to consider how notions of masculinity common in the Midwest still shape the way [he] views the world.” This concept largely contextualizes the environment in which CMS takes place.
In several movements, Johnson makes the conscious decision to include both gender stereotypes and contradictions in the piece. “We Are All Sons” embodies traditional masculinity, for example, but that does not hold true for all other areas of the work. The character of the Fence, traditionally sung as a lower baritone voice, “held [Matthew] all night...just like a mother.” In Deer Song, the sopranos and altos (higher voices), take on Matthew’s point of view and his dream to find a home where he belongs, where the hurt has been washed away. Moments like these hit home for so many people, and help to humanize everyone, regardless of gender or age.
Considering Matthew Shepard ultimately ends on a positive and optimistic note, hoping for a world where we can meet each other where we are and embrace what we all have in common to create a better world. One of the performers commented that “CMS is a piece of loss, grief, and coping, but ultimately one of hope and trust in humanity’s inherent capacity for love.”
W&L is lucky enough to be hosting Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s parents and founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, on March 12th and 13th. On March 12th, they will be leading an open forum discussion in Wilson Hall at 5:00 pm that is open to the public. They will also be leading the talkback after the performance on March 13th. The other performances’ talkback will be led by Jason Marsden, current executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. When he met the choir in Colorado on tour, he said his biggest hope is that “my job is obsolete very soon.” He hopes that one day, people will remark Matthew’s story is terrible and tragic, but that there is no longer a need to perform Considering Matthew Shepard.
There are no right answers to the questions this piece offers, but the point of bringing Considering Matthew Shepard to campus is for the audience to, well, consider. To quote Troy Larsen ‘22, “CMS is meant to challenge its audiences. It’s challenging to do Matt’s story justice—it’s dark and painful and full of the worst sides of humanity—but the piece does a wonderful job of reminding us that there is so much good in the world.”
Friday, March 13th at 8:00 pm
Saturday, March 14th at 8:00 pm
Sunday, March 15th at 3:00 pm
Tickets are required and are available here.