"Sheepdog" shows that the issue of killer cops is not simply black and white

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Lowell Thomas.

We’re barely halfway through January, and I have already seen a play that feels destined to be one of the best shows of the year. Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Kevin Artigue’s Sheepdog is a challenging, provocative, timely two-hander that moves beyond the headlines to examine the personal and professional costs of the terrifying and divisive national epidemic of young black men being killed by police officers. Although openly acknowledging the underlying systemic racism that too often leads to such tragedies, Artigue does not settle for the easy answer, nor does he seek exoneration of the men and (occasionally) women who fire the shots. Rather, his emotional and deeply nuanced play forces us to consider the potentially more frightening possibility that our society’s deep rifts engender so much fear and distrust that even good cops might pull that trigger in situations where they shouldn’t.

Directed by Wardell Julius Clark, Sheepdog focuses on two police officers: Amina (Leslie Ann Sheppard), a college-educated Black thirteen-year veteran of the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP), and Ryan (Drew Schad), a White eight-year CDP vet who derides his own upbringing as “trailer trash.” Partnered together, the two grow closer and more romantically entwined after Amina tears her ACL on the job and Ryan volunteers to help her with rehabilitation. Slowly, Amina—despite the fact that she has intentionally hardened herself against doing so—starts to find that Ryan’s openness and genial demeanor help to make him her “person,” the one whom she can love. We watch all of this happen in a flashback. (Artigue seems to enjoy playing with time, employing a VCR-like “rewind,” “pause,” and “fast forward” technique to jump us back and forth.) Prior to the flashback, however, we are treated to a brief but ominous scene in which Amina tells Ryan that they need to “talk,” a line that anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows means that something serious is going on.

That “something” arrives out of nowhere in the shape of a phone call in which her “person” tells her, “I shot someone; I think they’re dead.” With those eight words, both of their lives are turned upside down, and the racial divide between them is suddenly thrust wide open, forcing Amina to reassess everything she thought she knew about their lives together. As one of her friends tells her, “People are going to pick sides. And they’re going to want to know what side you’re on.” As the question of where Amina’s loyalties truly lie arises—could this man whom she loves be one of those cops after all? is she Black first or Blue? does Ryan’s race make real understanding between them impossible at some fundamental level?—she is torn in several directions. On the one hand, she is satisfied with his explanation of what happened (the young man, who seemed to be high on something, pulled a knife on him), but inconsistencies in his statement dig at her subconscious, making her start to question her lover.

The title “Sheepdog” comes from a book Ryan is reading, a sort of cop manifesto that divides the world into “wolves”—predators—and “sheep”—victims. In this view of humanity, the police are the “sheepdogs” whose task is to protect the sheep from the wolves. Amina quickly recognizes what Ryan does not: the racist dog whistles inherent in this notion. Noting that the author fills auditoriums with talks based on his book, she points out that all of the attendees are White: “There are no Black people at his events for a reason. And it’s not because they were busy that day!” Though Ryan hears her and immediately agrees to throw the book away, Amina is struck by the vast discrepancies in the ways in which they see the world. Never having been a Black person or a woman, Ryan is unable to comprehend basic elements of life outside of the White patriarchy. He lacks the experience that could allow him to see from her perspective. It’s understandable to her, but it’s still disturbing.

Director Clark, working on a brilliantly flexible set designed by Sydney Lynne Thomas, does a remarkable job of keeping the play moving, including making scene changes a part of the interaction between his actors. And he clearly has worked a lot with both of them on the incongruities and issues their characters are facing. Both Sheppard and Schad pay outstanding attention to emotions, whether overwhelming or subtle, and each character goes through a wide variety of them during the play—especially after the shooting, which colors everything that follows it. Both are excellent, and Schad deserves kudos for maintaining Ryan’s likable personality in the wake of something that nearly destroys him, but despite Ryan’s breakdown, it is Sheppard (who after all plays the focal and narrative character) who bears the brunt of the emotional weight of the play. She basically puts on a clinic here about how to handle multiple conflicting emotions at the same time. Amina is a woman caught between worlds that are colliding, and Sheppard’s layered performance will blow you away.

Beyond the set, the rest of Clark’s design team also does excellent work. Christopher Kriz has created original music for the play as well as a sound design that interweaves live performance with remembered dialogue. Jason Lynch’s lights reflect both scene changes and the emotional condition of the characters. Costume designer Hailey Rakowiecki’s work is perfect, and Smooch Medina’s projections play very important roles. 

While Sheepdog condemns in no uncertain terms the institutionalized racism, graft, and coverups that plague modern police forces, Artigue’s decision to focus on one interracial police couple forces the audience to see even the shooters as complex protagonists rather than the one-dimensional villains that sensationalist news coverage and the frustration of so many being exonerated even against clear evidence make them appear to be. Instead of feeding our preconceptions, he makes the issue personal—not just for the victims’ families, whose losses we can easily understand, but for the cops themselves whose lives and careers are forever changed in one moment. “We don’t shoot to wound,” Amina tells us. “We shoot to neutralize the threat, to aim center mass.” But when the decision to use lethal force is made under duress, which it almost always is, mistakes are made. There is no simple solution to this problem, and Artigue doesn’t even attempt to find one, but this powerful play shows how easy it is for everyone to lose when split-second decisions go wrong. 

Sheepdog is a Shattered Globe Theatre production now playing at the Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, until Feb 29. The show runs approximately 85 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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