AN INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN ARTIGUE, playwright, Sheepdog
What is the genesis of Sheepdog?
It started from an emotional place. I was responding to what I was seeing and witnessing and the cascade of videos of police shootings and subsequent lack of indictments and the lack of accountability and justice. Then I did a little more of my own digging and reading, and saw that the underlying causes and systemic issues were layered and complicated. I read a couple of pieces that were impactful early on. One of them was a New Yorker profile of the officer Darren Wilson – the officer who killed Michael Brown. There was something powerful and disturbing about his inability to articulate what he had done. Partly it’s because he’s not a well-educated articulate guy. He’s working class. So when he’s forced to put words to his actions, he fails. He trips over himself and reveals an underlying racist bias that he’s blind to, that despite his good intentions he can’t overcome. That blindness is at the core of the character of Ryan in Sheepdog. The other piece of writing that greatly influenced my thinking is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. His description of officers as an apparatus of state power resonated with me.
How did you create Amina, such an interesting protagonist?
One important inspiration for Amina as a character is an officer named Nakia Jones. She was an active police officer in Cleveland and is now an author and speaker. On the heels of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the shooting of the officers in Dallas she posted a Facebook Live video in which she became incredibly emotional and gave voice to her pain and frustration in a very brave and forthright way. She was speaking from the complicated perspective of both an African-American police officer witnessing these shootings and an African-American woman whose heart was breaking. Her message is, if you are a white officer and you are racist, take off the uniform. If you are a white officer and you are not comfortable policing the communities you are assigned to police, take off the uniform. Take it off. Don’t do this job.
She was so brave for speaking out. At that time there were few officers speaking out publicly against what we were seeing. They were mute, as they usually are. What stuck with me was her courage and the conflict that she was living everyday, the divided loyalty she and other officers like her must feel and struggle to reconcile.
When did you write the play?
I’ve written two other versions of this play that I’ve thrown out completely. This goes back to 2016. Again, I was writing from an emotional place and stepping back I could see I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what I – a white male – had to say that would move the conversation around police violence forward or shed new light on it. It took a while to figure that out.
And once I discovered the structure and characters, it took a long time to research the piece. I interviewed a number of police officers, focusing on officers of color and women. I remain grateful to those willing to be interviewed.
Are there common themes that run through your work?
Most of my plays come from a personal place, which is also political. I’m interested in the ways larger systems of power affect our humanity, how they corrupt and disfigure it, and how this corruption seems inevitable in our economic system. I hope that in all my work you see personal relationships embedded in larger conflicts that exist outside of the world of the characters. We watch them resist and resist facing the truth, until it comes crashing down on their heads. A story starts from a real question that I’m asking myself – an ethical conflict I can’t figure out – and I interrogate myself. Writing the play is the process of that interrogation, of trying to prove myself wrong. In this case, the question of Sheepdog is: “In spite of footage and body cams, why does this keep happening? And what does it say about me that it keeps happening?” To write Sheepdog I had to examine my own whiteness, my own biases and upbringing, and be willing to go to an ugly place, but hopefully an honest one.