During the years that John Conroy was writing about police torture for the Reader, he and I sat at his kitchen table when each new story was done and went through it line by line. Every quote, every date, every significant specific needed to be checked against its source—which Conroy had collected in a box full of carefully labeled folders. He was practicing high-wire journalism. The facts had to be unimpeachable.
Art is different. In 2007, the year Conroy and other staff writers were laid off from the Reader as a result of a doleful economy, he began writing a play inspired by the Chicago scandal and his deep understanding of torture and torturers (in 2000 Conroy published a book on the subject, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture). Conroy changed names and reduced a vast cast of characters to a handful, but correlations between the play and the facts were sturdy and obvious. A high point of the play in early public readings came when its accused police commander spoke a few words at a dinner thrown by supporters. His remarks were modest, engaging, and unapologetic; Conroy says a federal magistrate who attended a reading "told me she drove home in tears because she could finally understand what Jon Burge was about."
The police commander of the play was differently named, but the character was very much the Jon Burge whom Conroy introduced to the city in his 1990 Reader article "House of Screams," about torture in the Area 2 Violent Crimes unit Burge commanded. "The truth is that I find Jon Burge a likable man," Conroy wrote then. "He's irreverent, he's modest about his accomplishments, and he tells a good story."
Conroy's play, My Kind of Town, opens this week at TimeLine Theatre. The commander's scenes are gone—he is no longer a role. TimeLine's artistic director, P.J. Powers, and the play's director, Nick Bowling, wanted to put on Conroy's play and they wanted to change it. "It was hard," says Conroy. "It's the first play I've ever written, and I was so tied to the real story for so long that I had too much journalism in the initial drafts. But in the end, once I could get away from the journalism, it became easier. Unlike journalism, where it matters if someone is on the fifth floor or the 26th floor, in theater it doesn't matter at all. In a way, I think it becomes a more universal story, and so it was better. It was actually much better. Every character is now a reinvention of reality. Every character has no resemblance to any particular person or location."
As for the Burge character, Conroy said Bowling and Powers told him, "We think this play would be stronger if we could concentrate the drama on fewer and fewer people. We could ramp up the tension for each individual character." More than 100 men have alleged that they were tortured by Burge or cops under him, and in the script Conroy gave TimeLine there were only two—and just two cops accused of torture. But Powers and Bowling wanted the focus even tighter. Conroy set to work. "I realized the head of the unit that tortured people was extraneous," Conroy says. "He'd been there mostly to give the point of view of the people who decided to torture. But I could do that with the other character in the play that tortures.
"It was painful," Conroy continues, "because I really liked those scenes. But time and again, when they suggest something and my initial reaction is oh no, when I think about it and try it they've been right."
The role of the defense attorney was originally inspired by the handful of attorneys Conroy had seen time and again representing Burge's accusers on appeal. Flint Taylor of the People's Law Office is the archetype. "And so then in casting, TimeLine cast a wide net, and the best actor who came in was African-American. My initial reaction was the journalist's reaction. I said the vast majority of the lawyers in these cases haven't been African-American. But they said, 'One, we have this great actor, and two, one of the virtues is that when you have an African-American representing an African-American and both come from the same sort of neighborhoods, you have the possibility of a defense attorney realizing that there but for the grace of God go I.' I realized this guy would have a different investment than a white defense attorney and the response of the prisoner being represented would be different. So I agreed to try rewriting it, and in the end I thought, 'This is fine.'"
Less than a month before opening night the African-American actor quit to take a TV job. TimeLine immediately held new auditions and cast a Hispanic. "So there we were again, writing around the actor." The defendant is hostile and profane, and he derided his black attorney as a "coconut"—white on the inside. With the recasting, "those kinds of things had to change," says Conroy.
This volatile client wasn't even a role in the early drafts. "The old play had a prisoner who was completely innocent," Conroy tells me. "He'd stolen four tires, but otherwise he hadn't committed anything. And TimeLine said, 'For our audience the way you've got it now is too easy. We need a guy who's not so nice." Conroy had just the guy; but until he wrote the part, the not-so-nice torture victim was someone we only knew through scenes created for his anguished parents. "It was a part I was hesitant to write," Conroy says. "I didn't know if I could. He's a guy who, having been tortured and living on death row, is mentally ill. It was much easier to write the guy who wasn't mentally ill than the guy who was."
The troubled prisoner is now onstage for the same reason the police commander is off—the play works better this way. "I guess our point was to keep that character more in people's imaginations," artistic director P.J. Powers says. "This story isn't so much about the baddest of the bad guys, if you will, it's more about all those who were complicit. I think it's more interesting seeing the second, third, and fourth layers of people who turned a blind eye."
One of those layers would be the audience itself. In another change upping the ante, a couple of weeks ago TimeLine added a twist at the end that Conroy hopes will work. "I think this furthers John's efforts to make this a complex story," says Powers. "It'll have people's minds racing a little bit more, wrestling with what they think their value system is."
If the audience gets off scot-free, the play fails. "That's what our great city is about," Powers says. "It's millions of people who chose to turn a blind eye, this culture of complicity that I think rules our town, be it a police scandal or other forms of corruption. Those of us who love Chicago laugh off and almost wear as a badge of honor that there's corruption. Indicting the audience is a conversation worth having that I don't think has been had yet in the city. I'm shocked by so many people I talk to about the play who say, 'What was that scandal again?' It's been on the books 20 years and I don't think a single election was impacted by it. And I own the fact that I was sitting on the sidelines for all of it, flipping past it in the papers."
The exasperation I hear from Powers is the exasperation I saw welling up in Conroy years ago when it became apparent that no sea change would come from his labors, and barely even a rising of the tide. When I ask him what the nub of his play is, the essence that must not change no matter how much else changes, he says nothing on the order of "Chicago has blood on its hands." That's an old, tired message long defeated by apathy. Conroy replies, "Good people doing bad things."
That's Conroy the dramatist talking. "The officer in the play who tortures runs the clothing drive in his parish. He and his wife collect coats for the homeless. That seemed to me to be completely believable. In other aspects of their jobs as policemen, the officers might be really serving the public. But they decide to cross a certain line and then they're sort of addicted to it."
Eighteen months ago I reported that Conroy had been hired to be senior investigator of the Better Government Association. But it wasn't a good fit and Conroy left several weeks ago. "It's a good thing I'm not working," he told me as opening night approached. "I'd be going absolutely crazy if I were."