By NICHOLAS BOSTON
The cozy Westside Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen was the setting last Wednesday evening for “Embrace,” a concert benefiting the Wyoming-based Matthew Shepard Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of the 21-year-old, openly gay college student murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.
The benefit, organized by producers Michele Helberg, Mark Matukewicz, and Jamie McGonnigal, featured performances by cast members from the Broadway and Off Broadway productions “Taboo,” “Bombay Dreams,” “Bare,” and others.
“The Matthew Shepard Foundation is something I have always related to,” said McGonnigal, who met Judy Shepard last fall at another benefit. “I’m hoping this benefit will be a ‘first annual.’”
The event sold out with tickets at $50 each.
Most of the evening’s performers were up-and-coming 20-somethings, a fact that underscored the tragedy of the violent interruption of Shepard’s own youth and potential.
Among them was statuesque Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, who is already recognized in the gay and lesbian community for using her reign as a platform to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. Currently a cast member in “Cabaret,” Shindle belted out a burlesque-style number, clad in a slinky red cocktail dress.
Veterans of the musical theatre community also made appearances, notably Hinton Battle of the 1975 production “The Wiz,” whose solo ballad from “Miss Saigon” brought the audience to its feet.
Also performing was San Diego-based singer-songwriter Randi Driscoll, whose song “What Matters,” in honor of Shepard, has raised $35,000 for the non-profit foundation.
Famed gender illusionist Charles Busch hosted the event. His expert comic delivery diffused more than one stage blunder, as well as lightening the gravity surrounding the group’s founding and the plight of queer youth.
“I’m ubiquitous,” Busch told the audience. “I do benefits for diseases that have already been cured.”
“Embrace” was the first major New York theatrical event to benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said the producers and Christopher Maluck, who addressed the audience on behalf of the Shepards.
Maluck said that in addition to “speaking out on the subject of injustice” and “embracing diversity in all forms,” the foundation focuses attention on what he termed “throwaway youth,” those mostly queer runaways who have a 48-hour window after leaving home before they are forced to turn to prostitution or other measures for survival.
A major goal of the foundation is thus to create “safe houses” in Matthew Shepard’s name to shelter and counsel abandoned youth.
Judy Shepard has been a tireless crusader for funds and awareness to support the foundation’s initiatives.
“Judy’s speaking tour has reached over 300 colleges and universities and a half million young people,” said Maluck. “It’s the funds from these speaking engagements that keep the lights on at the foundation.”
Matthew Shepard’s murder raised national awareness about the vulnerability of queer people to violent attacks not only in rural locales, but also in urban centers.
The young man’s murder also spurred a dialogue in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community about homophobia in America’s heartland and the isolation experienced by gays and lesbians living outside major cities.
“We are indebted to the fantastic national leadership shown us by HRC, NGLTF, GLAAD, PFLAG. They held Judy Shepard’s hand and our hands as we made our way into the world of non-profit work,” said Maluck, referring to the major national organizations that serve the LGBT community.