Monday, February 17, 2020

Of Race and Raw Footage: 'Sheepdog' Provides a Searing, Nuanced Glimpse Into Police Shootings -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a new play by Kevin Artigue
directed by Wardell Julius Clark
Shattered Globe Theatre
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru March 15

In the first 45 days of this new decade, I've seen and reviewed 12 works of theater.

All have been worthwhile, many superb, a few sensational.

I've also attended some concerts, and of course I can't get to everything. (Besides blogging, I'm presently working full-time.)

But four current shows I hadn't seen--Sheepdog, Top Girls, Sophisticated Ladies and An American in Paris--have drawn raves from the Chicago Tribune's esteemed theater critic, Chris Jones.

His 4-star (out of 4) review, other high praise and the topical subject matter particularly intrigued me to see Sheepdog, and so I did on Sunday afternoon, where the sold out crowd at Theater Wit also included at least one Tony-winning actress and a noted local Artistic Director.

And though sometimes it doesn't quite work out this way, I found Sheepdog to be as terrific as Jones opined.

Deftly written in non-linear fashion by Kevin Artigue and wonderfully directed by Wardell Julius Clark, the 90-minute one-act drama features just two characters, though recorded voices flesh out a few scenes.

Amina (Leslie Ann Sheppard) and Ryan (Drew Schad)--with both actors doing remarkable work--are Cleveland cops, roughly in the present day.

Neither is a rookie, but also not old; perhaps late-20s/early-30s.

As scripted by Artigue, she is black, he is white.

Initially they are partners, and as one supports the other through recovery from a significant line-of-duty injury, they become lovers and eventually move in together.

The romance appears genuine, with Ryan and Amina seeming to overcome hesitancy born from parents who treated them harshly and/or spoke belligerently about those of other races.

She is proud of her heritage and having risen out of "the ugly" of Cleveland's East Side; he is from a small Ohio town but works with inner city youths and befriends a veteran African-American cop who becomes something of a mentor.

There are places they don't quite intersect--Amina extols James Baldwin beyond his familiarity; Ryan can't fathom that she's never heard of Pearl Jam--but the relationship feels strong.

Until--and even awhile after--one of them shoots and kills a suspect of the opposite race in an incident where it is unclear if excessive force was used.

I'm purposefully keeping the details even more vague than Chris Jones did, in part because I can imagine a thrilling play switching up who does what to whom.

But Artigue's riveting work is clearly drawn from tragic episodes that ended the lives of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castilo. Walter Scott and several others.

Each of these real-life incidents is in some way unique, and not only may public perceptions vary, they might have changed as more became known and additional footage was released.

So besides chronicling a young cop whose actions go viral in a way all-too-familiar, Artigue smartly addresses relationships with other cops--including one's work & life partner--as well as institutional responses (from the police department, unions, city management and the justice system) and an increasingly malleable explanation as to what exactly happened.

As often seems true to me, the cover-up may be more deplorable than the deadly act itself.

Abetted this particular Sunday--I'm not sure if it's a regular occurrence--by a post-show discussion featuring a longtime but now retired Chicago police officer who provided some excellent insights, Sheepdog is one of the best new plays I've seen in awhile.

It's topical, about a highly charged subject, but it's also balanced, enlightening and absolutely riveting.

And the Shattered Globe production at Theater Wit has now been extended until March 15.

So if you haven't heeded Chris Jones' recommendation--and that of several other critics--you can now follow mine.

For Sheepdog--the title is explained within the show--demands your attention, theatrically and beyond.

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