A dogged reporter stages Chicago's police-torture scandal.
A Chicago police station, 1982: A young state’s attorney sees a detective emerge from the interrogation room, roll up a typewriter cover, pocket it and return to the room. Later, another detective instructs her: “When you see one of those guys taking in something heavy in a paper bag, or maybe it’s a typewriter cover, that’s when you go out on the balcony.” “A typewriter cover?” “Think about it: There ain’t no typewriters in interrogation rooms.”
It’s a scene chillingly familiar from accounts of activities at the Chicago Police Department’s Area Two, under the command of Jon Burge. As special prosecutor Edward Egan detailed in a 2006 report, detectives at Area Two suffocated suspects with typewriter covers, beat them with telephone books and administered electric shocks with cattle prods in scores of cases spanning two decades. But this exchange is drawn not from an official inquiry but from the opening scene of a new play, My Kind of Town, by John Conroy.
If Conroy’s name rings a bell in connection with the Burge case, it should: His 1990 piece for the Chicago Reader initially drew public attention to the torture allegations. Over the next 15 years, he repeatedly returned to the story, documenting official inaction and public indifference. (The depth and quality of Conroy’s reporting led New York Times reporter David Carr, among many others, to express dismay when the Reader laid off Conroy in 2007.) Even now, after the Egan report both acknowledged the torture and concluded that the statute of limitations barred prosecuting the torturers, Conroy points to innocent men, he firmly believes, still sitting in prison, while the role of high officials remains unclear.
As we sit in the 58-year-old’s sunny Oak Park kitchen, Conroy emphasizes with a calm intensity how the Burge story indicts a broader culture, not just an isolated bad actor. “I know why there’s no clamor to give these guys in prison new hearings,” the Chicago native says, “and that’s because they’re members of the torturable class. Nobody cares: They must be bad guys. That’s what I try to get at in the play. I try to show the cops as creatures of our own making.”
To that end, My Kind of Town interweaves three plotlines. The first follows the state’s attorney over 25 years as she rises from neophyte to supervisor; in the second, a cop confronts his son, who’s led a criminal life but wound up on death row after police torture led him to confess to something he didn’t do. “A charming South Side Irish torturer” carries the third thread, with the impact of his actions on his wife and sister as much the focus as his own motives.
“I was uninformed about the economics of theater,” Conroy dryly notes when explaining the complex scale of his narrative, involving 13 characters over two decades. The project began in 2007 at the suggestion of local film and theater director John Hancock (of the 1973 baseball tearjerker Bang the Drum Slowly). “I thought, I don’t want anybody else doing it, so I said I’d take a stab at it,” the first-time playwright says. Two years later, as he prepares for a third staged reading (prior presentations have been held at 16th Street Theater and Steppenwolf), Conroy stresses that Town is still a work in progress.
The collaborative process that has shaped it has been a revelation to its author. Originally, one of the unit commander’s speeches closed with “God bless you and God bless America”; at Steppenwolf, actor Jeff Perry ad-libbed, “and God bless the City of Chicago.” “It was just perfect,” says the now-freelance journalist, who’s enjoying the liberties his new form allows. “I love not worrying whether or not the car was exactly blue. I could do it all day.”
My Kind of Town gets a reading Monday 12 as part of the Chicago Writers Bloc Festival.