Art critique

SHEEPDOG at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

Sheepdogby Kevin Artigue, is a love story, a tragedy, a critique of the police in American cities and a cry of despair over race relations in this divided country. It traces the arc of an interracial romance between two young Cleveland cops, Amina (Sarah Ellen Stephens) and Ryan (Doug Harris). It starts off promising, as he tends to her during a service-related injury. Their love grows as she recovers. They start talking about raising a family together. They successfully navigate their racial and cultural differences. There is only one problem…

This one problem, however, though it starts small, eventually grows big. This leads to a whole bunch of other things in their story. In the package, we discover, lurks the almost inevitably racist task of policing in big cities, much of which enforces drug laws that essentially outlaw much of the cities culture and commerce (laws historically adopted essentially as a way to criminalize blackness), as well as rules for police stops and the use of force that repeatedly disregard an arrested person’s circumstances, including mental illness . The very white and very macho culture of policing, the “sheepdog” mentality of the title, amplifies the danger. And then, even with safeguards like body cameras to keep police honest, the recordings they generate – even supplemented by civilian phone recordings – rarely attract liability. All these questions pile up in the problem.

And that’s what’s happening here. Ryan pulls over a car with no tag ahead, and the next thing he knows the black driver is dead by his hand. As his account of the encounter changes and Amina begins to spot the development of his story, and then consequently begins to investigate on her own, the viability of their relationship is inevitably called into question, for if Ryan did what he’s starting to make look like he did, so at least on one occasion he acted like a racist bad cop. And could Amina tie her life to that of someone who behaved like this?

Some part forces simply cannot be transmitted in such a precise way. Artigue is awfully good at conveying in a few skilful touches the complexities of such a relationship, both interracial and intramural, and the denouement that begins there. It has the police culture down there, with all the restraints, social customs and sub-groups. And he understands, without argument, how an often toxic masculinity in police culture causes murderous intrusions into fragile black neighborhoods. (Baltimore theatergoers will recognize many, including a group of officers who look like the city’s former gun-tracing task force.) Everything is sketched out in deft, revealing detail.

This broad portrait of a crooked world is written in poetry, as in this speech by Amina on her pursuit on foot of a suspect, responsible for the injury from which she is recovering at the start of the action:

“You reach the fence, remember to wait for reinforcement

But instead… you summon your inner Jackie Joyner and swing one leg up with all your might.

Then the other

Pause to stabilize before letting gravity do the rest

While you drop…

Your feet expect to touch the ground but

The ground, it’s not there

It’s further than you thought

Eventually you land and when you do you hear a POP

You find yourself on your back

Howling at the moon from east Cleveland”

In the end, it’s largely the combination of sensitively curated detail and poetic diction on the one hand, and the big picture view of various interwoven social issues that makes the show so extraordinary. In this big picture, the problems are too pervasive, too entrenched to overcome, and well-meaning people who try to escape from these problems are likely to fail. Ultimately, the piece suggests that we are much more the product of the forces that shaped us than of our own volition.

Of course, the actors also do the part. Sarah Ellis Stephens’ Amina is capable of enormous tenacity but also enormous tenderness – and it’s the latter, so beautifully staged, that especially makes the story so heartbreaking. But she can’t lie to herself either. Therefore, the last thing she wants to do is the exact thing she is being pushed towards. And Doug Harris‘ Ryan is the perfect foil for that kind of character: an attractive and mostly decent, mostly honorable, mostly caring, mostly non-partisan young man who most women would love to take home to their parents, and he’s about to suit him.

The other great advantage of the play is the skill of the playwright Artigue in the architecture of the plot. There is an art to playing the cards that prepare the conclusion. In dramatic terms, almost the whole play is a single slow revelation, but one that unfolds in stages and with a definite rhythm. We see the start of the final climax scene at the start of the show so he told us early on where we’re going but we’ll barely recognize that scene when it’s replayed at the end because it now carries such emotional valence different, and we can see exactly how we went through the transformation.

In short, a beautifully written and beautifully performed piece. Do not miss.

Sheepdog, by Kevin Artiguerealized by Melissa Crespo, presented through July 31 by the Festival of Contemporary American Theater at Studio 112, 92 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $38-$68. Adult language, sexual behavior, adult situations. All audience members will be required to show proof of their vaccination status and photo ID, and wear a mask when in theater.

Production photo credit: Seth Freeman.