CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD
by Craig Hella Johnson
Texts by Michael Dennis Browne, Leslea Newman, Craig Hella Johnson, & other sources
The Choral Society of NEPA, in collaboration with the Bloomsburg University Concert Choir and the Bloomsburg Women’s Choral Ensemble, presented this important new work in 3 performances during spring 2023. The performances and rehearsal of this work were so powerful that we aren’t quite ready to take the following information down from this site. If you missed our performances and have not yet had the opportunity to experience CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD, we urge you to read on to learn more about the piece and the story it tells, and then listen to the complete piece as recorded by its commissioning choir, Conspirare, conducted by the composer.
We hope you can join us in April 2023 for one of our three performances of CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD, a 2016 oratorio by Craig Hella Johnson. To call this a “performance” and to call those who will come “listeners” does not accurately describe what awaits you. The work does tell the perhaps forgotten story of the 1998 hate-crime murder (25 years ago now) of a gay college student in Wyoming, an “ordinary boy” who “never could imagine his life could be this story” yet became a modern-day martyr with federal hate-crime legislation named for him. But the work prefaces and follows that telling with two larger and very important questions:
Why retell, why remember such tragic events?
What can we do with the sadness, anger, and frustration those stories ignite in us?
CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD might better be described as an “experience” or a “call to change.” Come at your own risk, but please come because CONSIDERING MATTEHW SHEPARD is ultimately less about Matthew Shepard than it is about you, me, and us.
The central image in CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD is the fence on which he was tied, beaten, and left to die. Beyond the killers, the fence is the only witness to the events of that night, and it finds voice and sings no less than four times during the story, becoming, initially, a cross-like symbol of sacrifice, but later, something even more powerful. Just as that physical fence was later torn down, we are invited to find, pilgrimage to, and tear down our own mental “fences,” those arbitrary and often un-noticed lines we draw to understand (control?) the world but that separate us from others, be those barriers be based on sexuality, gender, religion, age, health, nationality, politics, social class, etc. The first and last word of the piece is simply, “All.”
The music of CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD is itself a celebration of diversity, moving easily among a pleasing variety of recognizable, tuneful, and easy-to-understand styles, including country, folk, blues, gospel, hymnody, and multi-cultural. Nevertheless, arriving with some familiarity with the story and the texts can only heighten the impact of the performance. Browse on for various links to assist you in doing so.
Click below to read about Matthew Shepard and the continuing work of the Foundation that bears his name:
Click below to read the complete text of the piece:
Click below to listen to the whole piece, movement by movement:
Click below to read the initial New York Times articles on the attack and his subsequent hospitalization and death:
The 1968 federal hate-crime law extended only to crimes motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin, and only while the victim was engaging in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school. In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act which allowed the government to count the incidence of hate crimes based on religion, race, national origin, and sexual orientation, however, a sentence was added onto the end of bill stating that federal funds should not be used to “promote or encourage homosexuality.” Only in 2009 did Congress expand the 1969 hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. That bill was called the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. To read more about this legislation, click the link below:
In 2018, twenty years after his death, Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, interred his ashes in the crypt of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where he rests in safety alongside Helen Keller and others. To read about this, click the link below: