Review: IceHouse Tonight’s “Dogcatcher”

As national news outlets highlight the efforts of lawmakers to protect voting rights, artists and activists from Bethlehem’s IceHouse Tonight have created a thought-provoking virtual play that responds to these attacks on democratic processes and the racism that still shapes election and voting participation. The seven part series, called Dogcatcher, follows a small-town PA football coach and his campaign for mayor. As a Black man, Coach Xavier Books experiences structural and interpersonal racism on a regular basis. In order to highlight the deep history of racism in the United States, Books’ personal stories are juxtaposed with historical footage of KKK members articulating their racist justifications for violence and suppression. The effect is a chilling and emotional story that leaves viewers aware of the many ways that America’s racist history impacts individuals and communities today. 

Dogcatcher is particularly good at exploring the pernicious iterations of racism that exist today and might be easily coded as something else, if white viewers desired to look the other way and ignore racism’s evolution and permutations. For example, when Coach Books begins his campaign for mayor of his small town, he leverages his experience as a well-loved coach and contributing community member to try to gain voters. It is quickly obvious, however, that Books as a successful Black man is only acceptable in certain relegated realms. The town’s residents will act buddy-buddy with him to talk about football, but any whiff of discussion of an election, of politics, and Xavier is seen to be stepping out of bounds. In other moments, prominent white community members try to bribe Xavier Books to stop campaigning, framing their overt discomfort with his ambition as Xavier being “disruptive,” or arguing that this campaign is “not in his best interest.” In another moment, a white woman polices Xavier’s tone when he suggests angrily that he has a right to campaign just as much as anyone else. These examples demonstrate the way Dogcatcher is thinking through how racism limits the opportunities of Black people today.

Another framing of the series is a dreamy recurring memory sequence that depicts Xavier’s grandmother offering advice on how he can survive as a Black man in America. Xavier’s grandmother advises Xavier to never look a white man in the eye, to control his emotions, to shrink himself when talking to police, to keep his hands visible. This is the code for survival for many Black men. Such advice implies that Xavier’s decisions to fight back, to not shrink or to control his emotions as he resists the racism of this small town, is incredibly dangerous, and incredibly brave.

Another recurring theme throughout the series is the relationship between Xavier and his white mentor, Dick Phelps, the incumbent mayor. Repeatedly, Xavier’s white mentor implies that Xavier should be grateful for what he has, that Phelps has given Xavier every opportunity, positioning himself as a white savior. Phelps suggests that Xavier’s ambitions are overstepping the bounds of what is socially acceptable for a Black man, constructing Xavier as prideful, rather than the humble, groveling Black man who he is meant to be in order to be palatable to white interests. While Dick Phelps seems one of the most sympathetic characters to Xavier, his refusal to address racism in politics and civic life causes him to see Xavier as a disruption and a threat to the way things are, which protects his own power.

Ultimately, Dogcatcher is not interested in happy endings. This series explores the material consequences of the racist ideas and structures that Xavier faces in the climax of the series, which I won’t ruin here. Instead, I hope that you will take the time to be riveted by this chilling and emotional virtual series, available on IceHouse Tonight’s Facebook page. This local production is a valuable piece of art for Bethlehem residents to explore. The Dogcatcher series applies the national concerns about anti-racist election and voting processes to a concrete story set in the dynamics of a small town. In doing so, the series encourages productive reflection on the fairness and equity of our own community. 

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