‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ shifts perspectives
Considering Matthew Shepard
MSU Singers + Chorale
Music by Craig Hella Johnson
Conducted by Heather J. Buchanan; pianist Steven W. Ryan
Film introduction from David Sanders and Steve McCarthy
Beatrice Crawford Memorial Concert
Sunday, Dec. 8, 3 and 7:30 p.m.
Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University, 1 Normal Road
Post-performance talkback moderated by Cathy Renna. Free.
By GWEN OREL
The young woman’s eyes filled with tears.
She’s performing in “Considering Matthew Shepard,” an oratorio by Craig Hella Johnson that tells the story of the gay college student in Wyoming who in 1998 was beaten, robbed, tortured, and tied to a fence. Shepard died six days later, and his story has inspired hate-crime legislation and many cultural responses.
Many of the students performing in “Considering Matthew Shepard” at MSU in December were babies when the crime happened.
They’d heard of it vaguely, but didn’t know the whole story.
For the young singer (she asked not to be named because not all of her family know her orientation), this piece, which gives voices not only to Shepard but also to the murderers, and even the fence, “is not only speaking to the people who have been in Matthew's position, or who know someone who's been in his position.
"But it's also speaking to the audience members who maybe came because, you know, their kid was in it or their family member was it, and they might still hold those homophobic beliefs. And I'm hoping that, you know, if this can change one person's mind, this could shift one person's point, and then I would be a success,” she said, her voice cracking.
“On a daily basis, I am getting verbal conversation and emails from students,” said Heather Buchanan, professor of music and director of choral activities, who conducts. “I have experienced firsthand, students spiraling in desperation. There is increasing hate crimes and hate speech.”
It’s not just an impression: NorthJersey.com reported last week that New Jersey had 561 hate crimes last year, according to the FBI’s annual crime report. That’s the third year in a row that these crimes have risen in the state. Of those crimes, 53 were linked to perceived sexual orientation; seven more were linked to gender identity.
The Shepard Foundation uses the hashtag #EraseHate, and this concert does as well. Students have been taking the initiative to create projects that support it.
A club on campus called Musicians for Social Justice has been doing “reckless acts of kindness.” People have been writing messages of hope on #EraseHate papers and putting them on fences in the community.
“People think college kids are fully fledged adults but they are not,” Buchanan said. “What we do in higher education is important in shaping what they do. Some students supect they might be gay, and they come to college and have their first experience living away from home. They have trauma about how they will come out to their families, will they be accepted, will they still be loved.”
The project has been planned since last spring. It is a Beatrice Crawford Memorial Concert, which is a free public performance supported by the Keating Crawford Foundation.
It “sold out” (reserved seats) almost at once, and performances had to be added. Those who cannot get in can watch a YouTube Livestream of the event.
There will be 190 voices on stage: the chorale, MSU’s symphonic choir, as well as the flagship, audition-based choir, the University Singers.
A musical ensemble of nine players will accompany the singers.
Buchanan explained that the Crawford concert has to be free to the community, and provide students with some sort of professional engagement. It rotates between the choir, orchestra, band and jazz ensemble.
Originally from Australia, she has been at MSU for 16 and a half years.
Prior Crawford concerts Buchanan has presented including work dealing with the underground railroad and black history; a piece on monotheistic religions, and “Alzheimer’s Stories” by Montclair’s Robert S. Cohen.
Buchanan first became aware of “Considering Matthew Shepard” two and a half years ago. When she realized its scope, she knew that even though last year was the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, this had to be a Crawford concert, with more time than a semester to prepare.
In recent years, Buchanan said, there has been a “permissible climate of hate happening everywhere. We’re in this phase right now where common courtesies and civil liberties a lot of us have taken for granted are now under threat. The only way I can address this is responsible programming.”
RETELLING THE STORY
Montclair’s Cathy Renna will lead talkbacks after the concerts. She was living in Washington, D.C., working for GLAAD (American NGO that monitors the media founded by LGBT people in the media) when Shepard was beaten. She went out to Wyoming and since
then has been connected to the story, sitting through the trials, working with the families. It’s been one of the most important parts of her activism, she said.
Renna runs a PR firm called Target Cue that focuses on LGBTQ and issues-based projects. She’s worked closely with the Shepard Foundation, founded by Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis, after he died.
“Matthew’s murder is historically one of the most visible things that has ever happened in the LGBTQ community,” Renna said. And one of the big questions is why his death received so much attention.
He was young, educated, white; he was the boy next door in our culture, Renna said. “It made our community look long and hard at our issues of classism, sexism, racism, transphobia.” There have been more gruesome hate crimes. What happened to Shepard, being tied to a fence and left to die in the cold, was horrific. But there have been other horrific events, including beheadings, that have not received the amount of media attention his death has.
And context is important. “It happened in 1998. In 1997, Ellen came out. So that was big. There was a lot of attention around the implementation of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ The late ’90s were a time when we also had a president who picked up the phone and called Matt’s parents,” she said.
Judy Shepard told her that since her son was receiving so much attention, she would use her platform.
“It’s transformative, especially for LGBTQ youth, to be part of something like this. And it’s important for the audience to understand why it matters, and why it’s still relevant,” Renna said. “It brings up so much for people. It brings up issues for people with anything related to ‘the other.’”
Soloist Sarah Peszka, 22, has been doing educational outreach. She’s an education major, student-teaching in music, and has been connecting with high schools in the area. She visits the schools and tells the story, to educate them on LGBTQ history. While visiting, she creates art projects with students, and discusses ways for them to work on hate crime prevention in their own towns.
PASSION, IN MUSIC
“Considering Matthew Shepard” is structured in three movements, Buchanan said. The Prologue shows Shepard as an ordinary child. The Passion section, modeled structurally after Bach, includes the recitations and tells the story, using news media and court transcripts. The Epilogue asks audience members to consider their own positions.
“It takes them on a journey, and at the end of it all, asks ‘Where do I stand when it comes to acceptance, forgiveness, love and compassion?’ We’ve got buttons everybody will get as they leave, with a graphic of the fence where Matthew was beaten, and the words ‘I am like you,’ which is a line from the piece.”
The oratorio shows how people are different and yet still connected. It uses poetry by Craig Hella Johnson himself, by the 12th-century poet Hildegard of Bingen, poet Lesleá Newman, U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin and others.
Musically, it includes jazz, hymn tunes, classical music, gospel.
All of the solos are drawn from within the choir: there is not a group of soloists standing in front of the choir. The fence has a strong voice. So does a deer: there’s a story that the deer stayed with Shepard all night long.
Isaiah Bridges-Green sings the voice of Shepard in “The Deer Song.” “This is really the part where his spirit is going up to Heaven,” he said. It’s hard to sing, but it’s also calming feeling: “It’s not meant to be hateful or bitter or anything like that.
A film introduction precedes the piece. A sophomore is choreographing a piece called “In Need of Breath,” about Matthew dying on the fence. “Considering Matthew Shepard” is truly a multimedia presentation, Buchanan said.
The four-minute film, created by MSU professors Steve McCarthy and David Sanders, precedes the oratorio and sets the scene. It tells Shepard’s story, and how his death galvanized the LGBT movement. “We also hear how our students have embraced the project and how it speaks directly to many of them,” McCarthy said in an email. He and Sanders interviewed MSU choir students, Buchanan and Renna.
Kyle Hayes, born in 1996, said that growing up he heard Shepard’s story in passing, and it had the weight of a warning: if you were gay, this was what happened. When he was outed to his family, he was told not to tell anyone.
Performing the piece took some of those negative connotations away. Seeing the different perspectives of the protesters and the supporters has given him hope. “It showed me that people I time of tragedy can rise to their best,” Hayes said.
He is a soloist, and sings “The Innocence,” but his favorite part happens right before it: “I Am Like You/We Are All Sons.”
“It forces us to have to look into the eyes of the killers,” he said. “Just calling them monsters doesn’t make them any less human.”