Ghostface Killah, Westboro Baptist, Megan Phelps and the 15-Year Journey to Bring ‘The Laramie Project’ to Atlanta
By Chad Darnell, Eldredge ATL guest contributor
On October 6, 2003, I had drinks in Laramie, Wyoming with Ghostface Killah from the Wu Tang Clan in the same bar Matthew Shepard met his killers, five years earlier to the night.
In partnership with Out on Film, I’m producing and directing an all-star cast reading of THE LARAMIE PROJECT this Sunday, Sept 30 at 7 p.m. at Dad’s Garage in Atlanta as a benefit for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. But to fully understand my connection to his legacy, I have to go back fifteen years.
My friend Chris’ art show and talkback at the University of Wyoming, brought me to Laramie. There were concerns Fred Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church were going to show up and protest. You remember Westboro. The family and “church” that protests with signs that say “God Hates Fags.” The Westboro Baptist Church infamously protested during the trial of Matthew Shepard’s killers in Laramie.
For whatever reason, these individuals felt called to show up with signs proclaiming Matthew Shepard was “in Hell” because he was gay. They even wanted to build a monument in the center of town stating the day he “entered Hell.”
Matthew’s friends from the community crafted gigantic angel wings to peacefully protest them and block the family from view of Westboro upon arriving at the courthouse during the murder trial. The trial propelled Westboro onto a national stage and we would see monthly news blasts about them protesting concerts, Prides and even the funerals of people in the military.
Chris’ loving and very protective mother didn’t love the idea of him going alone. I booked a flight. She booked a flight, I met them in Denver, then drove us to Laramie.
I remember everything was very flat and you felt like you could see for miles. I remember there was a very large Walmart in the middle of nowhere, but also not far from the unmarked road that led to the fence where Matthew would be found, clinging to life, by a stranger on a bike. I remember we stayed in a tiny motel right next to the train tracks on the edge of town and right next door to a large indoor flea market. I want to say the name was Big Al’s.
I remember the large contingent of LGBT students who came to hear Chris speak at The University of Wyoming that night.
`I remember we were all starving after the show. One of the students suggested going to the Fireside Bar. Since it had been five years ago that very night since “the incident,” I assumed it would be packed with a line around the block to get in. I’m not sure why that was the image I had in my head. I guess having lived in Los Angeles for three years at that point, I was used to waiting in line to go anywhere.
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The place was practically empty. Just two people sitting at the bar. The bartender. Maybe a waitress. Eerie. I remember walking in and immediately being hit with the smell of wood burning from a fireplace. I remember the couple at the bar left shortly after we all sat down. It was cold in October in Laramie. I remember seeing the pool tables where Matthew had played pool with one of his murderers, and I remember playing a game of pool with Chris.
I remember standing at the urinals in the dark bathroom where it was reported he spoke to one of them before leaving. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “He stood right here.” And I remember walking out of the bathroom to Chris’ mother screaming in her thick Boston accent, “Come meet my new friend, Mr. Ghostface!”
If my memory serves correct, Mr. Killah (born Dennis Coles, but goes by “Tony Stark”) and the Wu Tang Clan arrived in Laramie on October 11, 1998 for a concert at University of Wyoming to television trucks lined up and down Main Street. They wrongly assumed the press was really, really excited about their show that evening, not having any idea what had happened the day before.
From what I remembered, Dennis bought some land and lived part-time in Laramie and it was all because of his experience being in Laramie that week. I remember him speaking about how much he loved the town and the people.
The Tectonic Theatre Company arrived and interviewed town residents about a year after Matthew’s murder. Their play, THE LARAMIE PROJECT, would be produced in 2000 and HBO would release a film based on the script with an all-star cast in 2003.
CUT TO: 2009.
Six years later, The Tectonic Theatre Company announced they had revisited Laramie ten years after the murder and had completed a new play, LARAMIE: 10 YEARS LATER. Theatre companies all over the world were invited to stage a one day reading of the new work.
I am a member of Hollywood United Methodist Church. Our church sits one block behind the theatre where Oscars are handed out once a year. I was born and raised Southern Baptist. Hollywood UMC taught me what living “Christ-like” is supposed to be. I started attending regularly in the early 2000s, shortly after we needed to cast a minister for the funeral scene of the character Michael Vartan played on ALIAS. Confidently screaming in the production meeting, “I have the perfect guy! My pastor (Rev. Ed at the time) at Hollywood UMC!” I remember Ken Olin joking, “they let YOU in?!”
In 2009, I was also the director of communications for Hollywood United Methodist Church and part of my job was running the church social media.
I presented the idea of producing (alongside Pauley Perrette, one of our members) a staged reading of the script with a few actors we could get to and within a week, we locked in Zachary Quinto, Johnny Galecki, James Cromwell, Julie Benz, Helen Shaver, Michael Weatherly, Lisa Edlestein, Barrett Foa, and Jim Parsons. Jillian Armenante directed. All proceeds for the reading went to The Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard was in the middle of a book tour and we collaborated with Book Soup to have her speak and sign books immediately following the performance.
Things couldn’t be going any better.
Word of our little reading spread quickly and within 24 hours, we began getting tweets from THE Westboro Baptist Church. The same people I went to “protect” Chris from six years earlier (and they never showed) were now coming after ME.
“We are like so there, you won’t even believe how there we are. I’m on my way to the airport. And watch for our beautiful flier.”
The tweets originated from their social media guru, Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps and the daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper.
The tweets were followed up with an e-mail that said: “We’ll def be there! Your “angel wings will be as useless as they were at the actual funeral, though. =) Remember these photos?…” and then attached photos of Matthew Shepard’s funeral.
Westboro has never been violent. Never for a split second did I think they were going to try to shoot Pauley Perrette. They OBVIOUSLY meant, “we’re going to protest like we do at funerals.” That being said, when you have about a dozen television and film actors coming to a staged reading in a church and people are saying “Your angel wings will be useless…” some people tend to become alarmed. Nonetheless, we had the support of one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, the LAPD saw it as a threat and suddenly 10 of the hottest armed security guards in the 30 mile zone were hired.
Jillian Armenante, some of her theatre friends and members of the church, created clear plastic angel wings from Romaine Patterson’s same original schematics, in order to block any of our audience from them, but also, so they could see through. Like a force field. A symbolic protest.
And being Methodists, we bought sandwiches for the Westboro protestors. We had water. We were ready.
And they never showed.
And I was PISSED.
I have a longstanding history of being stood up and do you have any idea how anti-climatic it is to go to all of this trouble and then THEY DON’T EVEN SHOW UP?
The reading was packed. The actors were brilliant. Tears were shed. Judy Shepard was extraordinary. No one got shot.
But I was PISSED.
I wasn’t even out of the parking lot when I tweeted to Megan, “missed you today” and she tweeted back, “oh, you misunderstood. I meant we’d be there in spirit and as characters in the play.” (Like, no, bitch. I didn’t misunderstand you. You said you were heading to the airport. Why do I always get stood up!? NOW I’m being stood up by Westboro!)
I wrote back “I guess you didn’t hear. You people were written out in the sequel.” (A large presence in THE LARAMIE PROJECT, there’s not even a mention of them in the sequel.)
Because I was tweeting from the church account, I had to really restrain myself, but we had numerous exchanges for weeks that basically screamed, “The Bible doesn’t say that, Megan.” “Try reading the Bible, Megan.” For people who proclaimed to know the Bible as well as they did, it shocked the hell out of me that when it came to what the Bible says about homosexuality, she was very ignorant.
Tweets would be lobbed back and forth for nearly a year like, “Your pastor is a whore” and I would tweet back, “No, she’s not! Whore’s get paid!” (Thank God Rev. Kathy Cooper-Ledesma can take a joke…) and then it all went radio silent.
CUT TO: 2012.
My short film GROOM’S CAKE played the Kansas City Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Kansas City, Missouri. I was excited to make the trip to Kansas City, because I could drive just a short jaunt over to Topeka and take a picture and make a video. Just a simple photo of me, holding a sign that says “GOD LOVES ME” in front of THE Westboro Baptist Church compound.
After years and years of seeing that hate in Pride parades and on television, that felt good. It felt really good.
CUT TO: Feb 6, 2013.
I wake up to dozens of text messages on my phone. “OMG! Did you see!?” “Holy crap. Thought of you.” “Wow!” “Can you believe she left?”
Naturally thinking the actress I was working for at the time as a personal assistant had tweeted something completely insane while I was asleep, I lunged out of bed to see a link to a Medium article: “Head Full Of Doubt/ Heart Full of Promise.” Megan and her sister, Grace had left their family and the church.
In the article, Megan simply put, “We know we’ve done things that have hurt people.” “We love our family.” Megan began questioning her mother and other family members and didn’t like the answers. Imagine going your entire life and one day questioning everything you believe. Imagine having to LEAVE your family because you can’t accept their responses.
I think that’s very brave.
I reached out to Megan. She emailed back within the hour. I can’t find our exact email exchange but I remember her first line was, “You were one of the last people I expected to hear from.” A few weeks later, she, and her sister Grace, came to a service at Hollywood United Methodist Church.
Five months later, my film BIRTHDAY CAKE had its world premiere at the Kansas City Gay and Lesbian Festival. One year earlier I was making protest videos in front of her home. Now a year later, Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister were my dates to the premiere of my film about marriage equality.
Shortly after BIRTHDAY CAKE’s festival run, I moved back to Atlanta and once again found myself in casting. I had the honor of working on SELMA, the nothing but sheer bliss of casting MAGIC MIKE XXL and grew an entire market of actors in Savannah. Since moving back to Georgia, I’ve cast about 20 feature films and three television series. I’ve felt my purpose was to train, empower, and help open the door for actors who normally wouldn’t get the opportunity.
I’m excited about getting back up on a stage in Atlanta for the first time in eighteen years with HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH this November.
And I’m really excited about collaborating with nine incredible actors this Sunday on THE LARAMIE PROJECT. Steve Coulter was one of my first on-camera acting teachers at Image Film and Video back in the early 90s. Rosemary Newcott was a guest artist when I attended the Governors Honors Program in Theatre in 1990 and then she directed me in THE SWAN when I was at Georgia State University. I’ve known Tara Ochs for over 20 years from the early days of Dad’s Garage and that time I house sat what I thought was her cat, but was actually the neighbor’s cat. I worked with Amy Acker on ALIAS in Los Angeles. I cast Jessica Miesel in one of her first feature films and now she’s on two television series at the same time. I’ve known David Shae since my days in Los Angeles. I cast Randy as Kim Fields’ husband on LIVING THE DREAM. And I’m a stupidly massive fan of Stephen Moyer, who rehearsed the Hollywood Bowl version of CHICAGO in the Hollywood United Methodist Church gym. Bruce Greenwood is just the definition of brilliance.
“You’re not afraid?”
I remember saying this to a young student at the University of Wyoming, who was sitting next to me on that night in 2003. I meant, “You’re not afraid being in a bar where two men took one of our own, beat him and left him for dead.”
I remember her smiling at me and saying, “Nope.” It was such a confident response. “After Matthew’s death, we kind of made this place our own. Our LGBT campus group hangs out here all the time.”
I can remember the bombing of The Otherside in 1997 and the terror the Atlanta LGBT community felt. No one was killed, but many people were injured.
And when we look back at the domestic terrorism of Pulse. The horror of Sandy Hook. Aurora. Every day it seems like we wake up and hear about a new mass shooting. Every week, we seem to hear about a new case involving the murder of a trans person.
Innocent lives lost. Taken. Just trying to live their lives.
In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act landed on President Obama’s table the weekend we gathered to read LARAMIE: 10 YEARS LATER. It felt like progress at the time.
We were hopeful in 2009.
We are ANGRY in 2018.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation strives to “Erase Hate” and replace it with understanding, compassion and acceptance. Through local, regional and national outreach, they empower individuals to find their voice to create change and challenge communities to identify and address hate that lives within their schools, neighborhoods and homes.
Their work is an extension of Matthew’s passion to foster a more caring and just world. They share his story and embody his vigor for civil rights to change the hearts and minds of others to accept everyone as they are.
But in 2003, I remember being afraid. I booked that trip to protect my friend. I booked that trip to protect my friend against a group of people, one of which I would BEFRIEND.
Megan is now married and starting a new life. She’s happy and she’s written a book that will come out next year. Reese Witherspoon optioned the film rights and is making a movie about her life.
Sometimes an exchange on Twitter can make someone change their entire belief system and force them to leave their family and start a new life.
Out on Film and The Robert Mello Studio present a staged reading of “The Laramie Project” directed by Chad Darnell and starring Amy Acker, Steve Coulter, Bruce Greenwood, Randy Havens, Jessica Miesel, Stephen Moyer, Rosemary Newcott, Tara Ochs and David Shae this Sunday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. at Dad’s Garage. Tickets are $25 and all proceeds benefit The Matthew Shepard Foundation. For tickets, click here.
A native of Atlanta and graduate of Norcross High School, writer-director-actor Chad Darnell is the screenwriter and director of “Groom’s Cake” and “Birthday Cake.” He’ll play the title role in the upcoming Pinch n Ouch Theatre production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” Nov. 8-25. When he’s not trying to find money for his feature film JOEY STEFANO, he divides his time between Savannah and Atlanta. His screenplay DARLENE will begin filming in Savannah in November with Mary Lambert directing.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.