No easy answers
Today is the official Opening Night for TimeLine’s 51st production — the world premiere of John Conroy’s My Kind of Town.
In July 2009 I got an email from John, introducing himself and inviting TimeLine’s Company Members to a reading of a play he was working on that he thought was a good fit with our mission. I regret to note that I was not familiar with John or his writing, despite the fact that he had been a leading voice in covering many facets of the Commander Jon Burge police-torture scandal in the Chicago Reader, in his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture and, more recently, on Chicago Public Radio.
He had been all over this story for 20 years—pretty much the entire time I had called Chicago home.
Like many, I had followed the scandal in a limited way—meaning, I would see a headline, skim an article, shake my head and flip the page—and never felt an urgent or personal connection to it. But here in my inbox was a thoughtful, impassioned note from an unsung hero who had devoted a massive chunk of his career to a story that had mostly elicited widespread indifference, even from a Chicago-loving liberal like me.
John’s first groundbreaking and exhaustive article about this, “House of Screams,” appeared on the cover of the Chicago Reader in 1990, blowing the doors open on a scandal that already was well into its second decade.
And a city shook its head and flipped the page.
In the three months after that 19,000+ word article was published, only four short letters were written to the Reader in response. Two were in support of the accused officers, and two were outraged at the allegations. Virtually no other news outlets investigated further.
Indifference reigned for six more years before John brought more evidence to the public eye through a furious stream of further allegations in more than 20 articles over the next 11 years. Belatedly, other news outlets began to join in.
But, to this day, it’s hard to argue that the scandal gripped the city, influenced elections, or even elicited much attention. I can’t tell you how many people sheepishly have asked, “What exactly was the scandal?” when I mention John’s play. And it is that culture of complicity that I find most fascinating about My Kind of Town and most admirable about what John has sought to do.
After receiving John’s intriguing email nearly three years ago and finally doing our homework, our first assumption about his play (prior to actually reading it) was that it would be an exposé, a rant, an indictment of those who wrongfully broke a code of honor. And it would be laid out in very black-and-white journalistic terms, where the audience left the theater feeling bad about government but great about themselves for piously nodding in agreement that “torture is bad.”
Stylistically, [Conroy] isn’t trying to merely stage what he’s already reported, docudrama-style, or even focus thematically on specific people, events or allegations. He is after something more complicated, more human, more dramatic and more insightful about our city as a whole …
To our surprise, John has no interest in easy answers and wants to avoid moral certainties. Stylistically, he isn’t trying to merely stage what he’s already reported, docudrama-style, or even focus thematically on specific people, events or allegations. He is after something more complicated, more human, more dramatic and more insightful about our city as a whole: How the culture of complicity has ruled the day for far too long.
Corruption has become almost a badge of honor that we Chicagoans joke about—a punch line. It has become too easy to say things like, “Sure, we know there’s shady stuff that goes on—the city is overrun by corruption!—but doesn’t Millennium Park look great? And don’t you love the flowers in the middle of Michigan Avenue?”
We focus on what we like and turn a blind eye to the rest. Because we’re “The City That Works.” The city that knows how to get stuff done. No matter the cost.
And while the majority would agree (in public) that torture should have no place in law enforcement, that must be counter-balanced with crime rates we find despicable, weekly headlines about the staggering number of people gunned down on our streets and outcries for the police to keep neighborhoods safe.
But at what cost? Where do we draw a moral line? Do we care how to keep the streets safe, how the work gets done, or just that it gets done?
It has been an indescribable honor working with John at TimeLine. John, director Nick Bowling, our Company Members and a team of actors and designers have collaborated during two in-depth workshops and countless conversations, developing his play into a powerful, emotional drama that will get you talking.
John is a man of impeccable integrity, insight, intellect and grace. And he is to be commended and heralded for, quite literally, saving men’s lives—those who already have been released from death row, and the countless others who, hopefully, in the future may receive a better shot at justice and due process.
Yet, while John is a crusader, he is also a pragmatist, a citizen, a parent. His admiration for law enforcement is without question, and honoring the selfless heroism of those who serve and protect us is of critical importance to him.
He also is committed to honoring the dignity of those whom society is all too willing to suspect of wrongdoing—a class of people deemed torturable for the public good.
TimeLine’s aim in bringing John’s dynamic play to our stage is to push a conversation that has been avoided for too long—one that, we hope, avoids easy answers, bumper-sticker responses, knee-jerk labeling and finger pointing in every direction other than inward.
I encourage you to read the archives of John’s reporting at chicagoreader.com/policetorture, and I look forward to sharing My Kind of Town with you and joining in a conversation about each of our roles in this great city of Chicago.