‘Sheepdog’ by Kevin Artigue at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

She’s Black. He’s white. They are in love. They are police officers. Their acting is as close to perfection as one can expect to find on any stage.

It’s happened again. Less than two weeks ago. Police shot and killed an apparently unarmed Black man. In Akron, Ohio, less than an hour’s drive from Cleveland, the setting of Kevin Artigue’s searing Sheepdog, now playing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

It’s a two-character piece: Amina (Sarah Ellen Stephens) and Ryan (Doug Harris). She’s Black. He’s white. They are in love. They are both dedicated to their jobs as Cleveland police officers, seeking to do some good amidst the “ugly” of the city’s boarded-up buildings and potholes and poverty and violence.

Even when things are going well — the couple declare their love for each other, she thinks of him as her “person,” they look forward to having children — there is a certain tentativeness in their relationship. Ryan speaks of seeing Amina giving him only 80 percent of herself. Amina sees things that Ryan doesn’t know he doesn’t know about her life as a Black woman.

Sarah Ellen Stephens as Amina and Doug Harris as Ryan in ‘Sheepdog’ by Kevin Artigue. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Then things stop going well. Ryan is involved in the fatal shooting of a Black man who is experiencing an emotional crisis. The circumstances are ambiguous, with parallels to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Amina learns of several versions of the event: is her partner telling the truth? She needs to find out and to do the right thing, even knowing the personal and career costs of doing so.

Artigue tells the story from Amina’s point of view, in a nonlinear fashion. The play is labeled as “a memory drama.” What we see are Amina’s memories of her relationship with Ryan and the effects of the officer-involved shooting, as the play’s chronology shifts frequently backward and forward. We see Anima as she remembers herself at different points of the story. We see Ryan as an artifact of her memory.

In creating their characters, Stephens and Harris are spot-on in every detail. Stephens’ Anima is by turns fierce, humorous, loving, emotionally cautious, and touched by loss. Harris’ Ryan is cheerful, well-intentioned — he tries really hard to be a good guy, both in his work and his relationship — and deeply into anxiety and denial in the wake of the shooting. Their physical acting is as close to perfection as one can expect to find on any stage. Stephens and Harris embody Anima and Ryan in ways that convey the state of their souls at each moment. Who the characters are, and how they came to be where they are, never fail to be crystal clear.

While the play is very specific about how race in America affects these two people, it is also a play of ideas about racism, especially, though not only, as it manifests itself in policing. Artigue presents the ideas in human terms, not as academic concepts, a fine example of the virtue of showing rather than telling. For example, what can fairly be called white privilege is an organic part of Ryan’s character. His privilege is not primarily economic; if anything, his origin story is more hardscrabble than Anima’s. But he is able to be oblivious to the impact of race in his life and work. Anima has the everyday, tiring task of dealing with that impact.

The play’s title comes from a pernicious strain in law enforcement training. It divides society into “wolves,” predatory bad guys; “sheep,” civilians who just want to live normal lives; and “sheepdogs,” a kind of warrior caste of police and armed civilians, whose calling it is to protect the sheep from the wolves, whether the sheep like it or not. (Thinking of most people as “sheep” is problematic in its own way, of course .)

When American police departments or individual officers implicitly or explicitly adopt this worldview, it is not surprising that the identity of wolves becomes color-coded. That can lead to over-policing of Black and Brown neighborhoods and a climate of mutual fear in which minor encounters (a missing license plate in Sheepdog) can easily turn deadly.

CATF’s production is a lovely example of flawless coordination of all the elements of a production. Director Melissa Crespo’s movement of the actors, Jonathan D. Alexander’s lighting design, and Sarath Patel’s sound design work seamlessly and precisely together to create one striking moment after another.

The lighting provides subtle shadings of color, shadow, and focus to accompany the emotional place of characters at a given time. The varied sound design begins the play with a burst of static and includes not only ambient city noises but the offstage voices of several people with whom the characters interact. The play’s chronological shifts are conveniently marked by quite literal sounds of a rewinding or fast-forwarding tape (amusingly, for a play set in 2017, what sounds very much like a reel-to-reel tape).

One of the best, though often unsung, services a company can provide its audience is informative dramaturgical material. Major theaters like Olney and the Shakespeare Theater traditionally do this well. CATF does even better. Theresa M. Davis has compiled a marvelous collection of material about the process of the playwright and designers in creating Sheepdog, as well as the play’s racial, historical, and law enforcement background. It is available on the CATF website. It’s very much worth reading before or after you see the play.

And see the play you should. It puts a very emotionally compelling individual human face on what continues to be a major fracture in American society. It does so in a fully riveting theatrical presentation.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Sheepdog is playing in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival through July 31, 2022, at Studio 112, 92 West Campus Drive at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV. The performance schedule is online here. Tickets ($68 regular, $58 senior, or $38 for Sunday evening performances) are available online.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival program guide is online here and downloadable here.

COVID Safety: Masks must be properly worn (covering the nose and mouth) while inside any building for all CATF performances and events. You will be asked to provide proof of vaccination and a photo ID. The CATF complete COVID Safety Policies are here.


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