Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The incident at the center of the play is one that lately seems like almost a weekly occurrence, so the play is definitely timely. However, perhaps because it's something that, unfortunately, happens so often, the play isn't quite as riveting as I have to imagine it was when it had its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in 2019, before the killing of George Floyd caused protests and so many to take action against inappropriate, unnecessary, and biased police violence against African Americans. Stray Cat Theatre presents the Arizona premiere in a well-acted and smartly directed production.
Amina and Ryan are street cops in Cleveland who have become friends. When Amina is injured, they spend more time together and feelings begin to develop between them. At first, the cautious Amina is concerned that their racial and background differences, and the fact that he's never read James Baldwin and she's never heard of Pearl Jam, will have a negative impact on their future, which may include having a child together. The shooting incident also has a major bearing on their emotional health and puts a strain on the relationship, testing their differences and forcing them to realize things about themselves they may not have expected.
Artigue presents interesting characters, compelling events, and a few plot twists that help ratchet up the intensity. He's also written a topical piece that, while the main incident involves police violence against African Americans, also focuses on the responsibilities Amina and Ryan have as police officers, the differences they have and struggles they encounter since she's Black and he's white, and not just on the overt racism with some police officers we've heard so much about since Floyd's murder. In doing so, it effectively presents various sides and views of the violent act and doesn't just paint the two in black and white but in shades of grey. That brings a realism to the play while also providing much to talk about and discuss about after it's over.
Amina serves as the narrator, as she comments on moments in her relationship with Ryan and attempts to understand and analyze the facts of the killing of the young Black man. Just like the video footage that comes into play in the drama, and how someone often looks back at and revisits events in their past where decisive moments happened, Artigue incorporates having Amina use the words "pause," "rewind," and "fast forward" to integrate several flashback scenes, fast-forward moments, and also a stop in the action for Amina to contemplate and examine the various events as they unfold. This provides a nice structure for the piece so, while it's still mostly a linear story, it also includes all of the details from that past that we need to make an informed decision about the events.
The title of the play refers to a book Ryan reads and how he views himself, Amina, and the other police officers as sheepdogs who are guarding the citizens (the sheep) against the threat of criminals and predators (the wolves). He adds that, while they don't want to harm others, they also aren't afraid of violence: "in fact, we thrive on it, but the right kind of violence." Artigue also focuses on how they both take seriously their duty and how they hoped by joining the force to make changes within it to make it better and less racially biased. All of those elements are tested, and their relationship is made more complicated as the pressure surrounding the shooting incident and the facts of it are revealed.
As Amina, Shonda Royall makes an impressive Stray Cat debut in a performance composed of strength, realism, empathy and integrity. Royall is on stage for the entire length of the play and she finds a beautiful connection to the audience through her strong, clear, expressive narration and her ability to naturally show Amina's determination to find the truth even if it will come at a cost to her. Amina, like Ryan, has some flaws, and Royall's performance allows us to clearly see them, warts and all. Royall's striking performance of this interesting woman is one you'll remember.
Devon Mahon is very good as Ryan. Mahon beautifully depicts a wide range of emotions and feelings, from the tenderness he shows in the early stages of his relationship with Amina to the moments of assuredness that turn to self-doubt around the shooting incident. As more details are revealed, Mahon's displays of Ryan's downward emotional spiral, confusion, pain and weakness are very realistic.
Director Louis Farber has done an excellent job with his brisk pacing and clear staging to keep the tension taut and the forward trajectory of the play never faulting. While the set design by Tiana Torrilhon-Wood is visually interesting, only using the colors of black and white in the design seems to be something too obvious for a play that centers on racial issues. The costumes by Maci Hosler depict Amina and Ryan in the same civilian clothes throughout the play. While I believe the idea not to have them dressed in police uniforms does make them look less imposing, the choice of clothing is somewhat odd in that it makes them both look disheveled and even somewhat uncomfortable. Dallas Robert Nichols' lighting works extremely well to depict the various shifts in time and place, and his brief video projection adds a nice visual element to the play.
While it's unfortunate this play didn't have as large of an impact on me as I believe it would have before George Floyd's murder, it is still an impressive, intriguing, and powerful piece.
Sheepdog runs through March 26, 2022, at Stray Cat Theatre with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please call 480-227-1766 or visit straycattheatre.org.
Director: Louis Farber