Good and bad. Right and wrong. We like to pretend that the dichotomy between these classifications is clear with no gray in between. But what about the distinction between black and blue?
The premise of Sheepdog, Kevin Artigue’s gripping work making its Chicago premiere with Shattered Globe Theatre, revolves around questions like this which shine light on the intricacies of intersectionality in a system deeply rooted in racism and misogyny. Over 90 grueling, stomach-churning minutes, the play’s main character, Amina (Leslie Ann Sheppard), a black woman serving on the Cleveland police force, narrates the story of her experience as a cop in a broken system. It’s a heart-wrenching production that makes good on Shattered Globe Theatre’s promise to create a big impact on a small stage.
At the start of the play, a longtime cop (Sheppard) feels a tremendous sense of loyalty and commitment to her work. Even her love life is connected to the police force; her boyfriend, Ryan (Drew Schad), serves in the same precinct. But when a controversial shooting involving a white officer and a young black man emerges in their department, the couple’s interracial relationship faces tension they never imagined, and Amina’s race and role are poised against each other in troubling ways.
It’s a heavy subject matter, to say the least, and the play’s format only heightens the emotional intensity. Rather than following a traditional linear narrative, Amina pauses, rewinds, and fast forwards the events, juxtaposing her feelings for her job and for Ryan prior to the shooting vs after. It’s an effective format for the story; it drives audiences’ focus toward questioning “truths” and systems that we are taught as children to trust blindly.
On the flip side, though, this format makes managing the performance dynamics challenging, and here Shattered Globe’s production proves less successful. Jumping between the “before” and “after,” there is sometimes little differentiation in intensity, which doesn’t always fit the scene at hand. Schad in particular remains heightened in certain moments that would be more successful with subtlety.
There are times, in other words, where the play and performances overreach in trying to direct audiences’ focus. A montage of police violence near the play’s end was the most prominent example of this. Showing these potentially triggering clips felt gratuitous in driving home the main point.
There’s no doubt, though, that this production is hugely impactful. “You’re black before you’re blue,” Amina explains to Ryan when questions why she frequently brings up race. Classifying people or systems into wolves or sheep (or in this case, sheepdogs) ignores the oppression and discrimination ingrained within our society, and Shattered Globe Theatre’s Sheepdog illiuminates this with a story you won’t soon forget. (Emily Schmidt)
Sheepdog continues at Theater Wit through February 29. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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