Toronto’s Echo Chamber’s Hope Against Hate in « A World Changed »

Toronto’s Echo Chamber, led by violinist Aaron Schwebel with the aim of integrating music and dance in innovative ways, revisits a dark moment in American history to remind us that the fight against bigotry and hate is a long way off. to be finished.

« A World Transformed » tells the story of Matthew Shepard through music, contemporary dance and spoken word from both his perspective and that of his mother, Judy Shepard, whose life was turned upside down at the time. where her son’s was cut short.

On a cold October night in 1998, 21-year-old University of Wyoming undergraduate Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten by two local punks, set on fire, and left for dead tied to a fence post next to a a lonely dirt road just outside of Laramie. Shepard was discovered 15 hours later still clinging to life but only survived a few more days.

Matthew Shepard was gay. While the exact circumstances that led to his murder are still disputed, it was quickly portrayed in the media and picked up by gay rights advocates as an unequivocal case of violent homophobia. As a result, he sparked a push to strengthen gay rights and have homophobia included in state and federal hate crime legislation.

It was a long political battle, but the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, (Byrd was horribly murdered in 1998 in Jasper, Texas by three white supremacists), was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 1st. 28, 2009.

Long before that, as celebrities lined up to support the cause, Matthew Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, set up a foundation in his name that continues through a range of activities to support the mission « to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all.

Moisés Kaufman’s 2000 verbatim theatrical work, « The Laramie Project, » made into a film two years later, quickly became a widely publicized vehicle for combating bigotry and homophobia. It is the most significant of a number of documentaries, dramas, musical works and books dealing with murder.

Tenor Marcel d’Entremont, Schwebel’s partner and instigator of « A Transformed World », sees it as a poetic way to pay homage to Shepard and his legacy.

« It’s unique in the sense that it tells the story of Matthew, but for the second half goes into the story of Judy Shepard. She’s almost a bigger part of the story because Judy is the one fighting for her. the change since Matthew’s death.Instead of just living her life in grief, she decided to shake things up.

« A World Transformed » makes specific references to historical facts but those involved in the production – Schwebel and d’Entremont, mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig, pianists Dakota Scott-Digout and Jeanie Chung and dancers Zachary Cardwell, Brayden Cairns , Evan Webb and Johanna Bergfelt – do not portray specific characters.

« We frame it in the context of the art, » Schwebel said, « because that can sometimes be more powerful than just telling the story itself. »

Schwebel and d’Entremont also want “A World Transformed” to transcend the particularity of Matthew Shepard’s victimization to make him the symbol of all kinds of oppression.

« This is for anyone who has ever felt some kind of persecution or bigotry, for whatever reason, » d’Entremont said.

D’Entremont’s musical, song and instrumental selections, which span a wide range of genres, are chosen to evoke emotional elements reflected in the text but, like the choreographed sections, are not intended to be literal or illustrative.

Choreographing the first section for a cast of three young men, William Yong says his goal was to embody the emotion and sentiment of the songs without attempting to tell a literal story.

Likewise, in choreographing the second part, Laurence Lemieux aims for a generalized portrait.

« Physically, I wanted to focus on a mother’s grief at the loss of a son in a universal sense without going into too much detail, » Lemieux said.

By revisiting the tragic story of Matthew Shepard, Schwebel and d’Entremont hope it will serve as a reminder that while progress has been made, the fight to protect those targeted because of their perceived differences is far from over. .

« Telling this story, » Schwebel said, « serves to reinforce people’s awareness that we’re not done yet, that versions of this are happening every day, whether it’s homophobia, racism or other form of persecution.

The existence of hate crime legislation in a number of jurisdictions has not ended hate crimes. It just makes them liable to prosecution. Right-wing extremism on both sides of the Canada-US border poses an immediate threat to LGBTQ2S+ communities whose hard-won legal rights are now openly contested. Ahead of recent municipal elections here, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network warned of a concerted effort by far-right fundamentalist groups to pile school boards with anti-diversity administrators.

Still, Schwebel and d’Entremont intended « A World Changed » to end on a hopeful note.

D’Entremont said: « Although we live in a world still marked by hatred, fear and intimidation, we have the ability, individually and collectively, to create change and embody values ​​that make the world a safer place for everyone, regardless of what we look like or who we love.

“World Transformed”, from October 29 to 30; Theater Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue;


Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who covers dance and opera for The Star.


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