Engaging a Community in Conversation: "Sheepdog"

Kimberly Colburn
 | Mar 06, 2019
Kevin Artigue

Playwright Kevin Artigue.

What’s in a Name?

Playwright Kevin Artigue drew the title for Sheepdog from a concept discussed in a book titled On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Combat in War and Peace, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a U.S. Army Ranger, paratrooper and former psychology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In it, Grossman suggests that police officers are like sheepdogs, “who live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” They must have qualities of both sheep and wolf—including a capacity for violence—in order to do their job effectively.

About Playwright Kevin Artigue

Kevin Artigue writes plays, TV, and film. He was raised in Redlands, Calif., and calls Brooklyn home. His plays have been developed with The Public Theater, the National New Play Network, New York Theater Workshop, Portland Center Stage, Golden Thread, Theatre of NOTE, the Playwrights Foundation, Long Wharf Theater and the Playwrights’ Center (Minneapolis). He’s a member of the Dorothy Strelsin New American Writers Group at Primary Stages and was a member of the Interstate 73 Writers Group (2016) and the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group (2015-16). His films include Resistance (2014) and Holy Ghost People (2013). He is currently developing screenplays including Imperative, Star Thrower and Scott Free. Artigue earned his MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

Kevin Artigue’s Sheepdog (April 14-May 5, 2019, Julianne Argyros Stage) is a mystery within a love story about an African American cop, her white male partner and a relationship that gets shaken to its core. The story told has inspiration in the real world—a police officer who began speaking out against police violence and Artigue’s own interracial relationship.

As Artigue explains in this Q&A, the story of Sheepdog, he is guided by a personal mandate to create opportunities in his writing for artists of color and women through his work.

South Coast Repertory: What was your inspiration for writing this play?
Kevin Artigue: Like most of us, I’m horrified and outraged by the cascade of footage of police violence against people of color. I’m also furious over the fact that these officers—even in the most egregious cases—are not being indicted, despite footage and despite body cams. How can this be happening, again and again?

It’s easy to jump to reductive conclusions and frame the debate entirely about race—make it black vs. white. Of course it is about race, it always is... but as I began to research and conduct interviews, I saw that the question of why was more layered, nuanced and complicated than what I assumed...especially for officers of color.

A source of inspiration for the play and the character of Amina is Officer Nakia Jones, one of the first police officers to speak out publicly against police violence and to lay bare her divided heart. I talked with her and interviewed police officers working in departments around the country, particularly officers of color. Giving voice to their unique experience and perspective is why I’ve written this play. But I’m also writing about my own love and experience in a long-term interracial relationship. The play gets very personal on that level. It’s an exploration of how the politics of the outside world can infiltrate a relationship, and inevitably change it.

SCR: This play first appeared as a reading during the Pacific Playwrights Festival (2018). Has it changed much?
Artigue: The process was intense and extremely valuable. I took full advantage of the fact I had four readings and I rewrote a ton. Now, I was working my butt off and didn’t get to see anything else and drank more coffee than beer, but I walked away from the festival with a deeper and more focused version of the play. I credit our director Leah [C. Gardiner] for creating a safe, positive, honest space for my actor's who were fearless and curious, and for dramaturg Jerry Patch, who had some mind-blowing new ideas.

SCR: Sheepdog has a unique structure in that it is a non-linear play that is narrated by the main character—is this typical of your work?
Artigue: In some ways, Sheepdog is familiar and in some ways it’s new. I’ve never written a play that uses direct address—a character speaking to the audience. But it felt appropriate and a useful tool to create an implicit bridge of understanding. Amina speaks in second person throughout the play—“You do this, you do that”—she doesn’t let us off the hook. And her experiences become shared and communal, which might break down any guard or defense someone may have towards her—because she’s black or because she’s a woman or because she’s a cop.

SCR: Why non-linear?
Artigue: Sheepdog is both a love story and a mystery. Amina is trying to solve the case and get to the truth, but to do this she has to actively explore her past. Her memories serve as clues to the present. So like a piece of footage, Amina stops and starts the play. She “rewinds” and goes backwards, interrupting the flow of time. In general with my plays, I try to take a realistic structure and break it up somehow, so the play is active on all levels—language, character and form.

SCR: This play speaks to our current cultural moment around the discussion of race—do you consider yourself an activist through your work or choice of topics?
Artigue: I use the word activist lightly. I don’t believe in putting a moral mandate on art. I am a raging Lefty but when I sit down to write a play I take that hat off. I believe the most interesting, truly dramatic work should be willfully agnostic and willing to go deep into the contradictions which make us human.

When I sit down to write a play, I try to prove myself wrong. That being said, my ideas, my seeds, come from my politics and usually from an ethical question I can’t shake. I care deeply about the ethics of my plays and the moral questions they pose. I wouldn’t call it activism, but I have a personal mandate to create opportunities for artists of color and women through my work and I’ve had this mandate since day one. I do believe strongly in activism around a play—with Sheepdog there is an exciting opportunity to continue the conversation about police violence outside the theatre and contextualize it for an audience.

I hope the audience comes away with an ache in their gut and a feeling that something has to change—and perhaps that change starts with a more honest reckoning at home in a conversation with a spouse, a family member or even someone in law enforcement.

Learn more and buy tickets for Sheepdog.