Investigative journalist adapts reportage on police torture scandal into a play
John Conroy isn’t letting anyone off the hook.
After spending much of the last two decades covering the Chicago Police Department’s torture scandal in the pages of the Chicago Reader, the veteran investigative journalist has now compressed the details of that grisly chapter of the city’s history into My Kind of Town, a two-act play premiering this month at TimeLine Theatre.
“What I wanted to do was indict the city,” Conroy says.
After Conroy first reported in 1990 on the allegations of systematic torture at the Area 2 police headquarters on Chicago’s South Side, he moved on to other projects at the Reader, expecting the city’s daily newspapers to pick up the story. But it wasn’t until 1993 when more reporting and follow-up coverage began.
In 1993, Jon Burge, the police commander at the center of the allegations, was thrown off the police force and the news of his ousting appeared widely in the press. “Burge’s picture was seen by millions in the papers,” Conroy recalls, but there was no public outcry. “People didn’t disbelieve [the allegations]. I think they were on the whole ready to endorse it.”
Nick Bowling, the director of TimeLine’s production, contends the muted reaction of Chicago’s citizens is perhaps the most important target of Conroy’s play. “The play is about the city more than it’s about the individual cops involved,” Bowling says. “This is a city that turns its back on all the ugly things until they are pushed into their faces.”
Turning a body of journalistic work into a dramatic production is no simple task, Bowling argues. “There are journalistic conventions that are different from the conventions of the theatre,” he says. “Journalism deals in truth, while the theatre deals in lies. Reporters are concerned with bringing the truth to the surface, while theatre is concerned with subtext, what is beneath the surface.”
Maren Robinson, associate artist at TimeLine Theatre Company and program coordinator for the MAPH (Master of Arts Program in the Humanities) at the University of Chicago, says the play’s direct engagement with important contemporary social issues is right in line with TimeLine’s mission.
In addition to her work as dramaturg for TimeLine’s production, Robinson recognized an opportunity for combining her work in the creative and academic spheres.
So she used her roles at the theatre and UChicago to help organize a discussion of the issues addressed in My Kind of Town. “It is important to see how the humanities can be used to engage social questions,” she says. “We’ve tried hard to make this part of the MAPH programming through events and conversations like this one.”
The panel of speakers will discuss police torture in Chicago at a discussion scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.
The panelists are distinguished guests with diverse perspectives on and experience with the CPD torture scandal and include former Chicago Superintendent of Police Richard Brzeczek; Clinical Professor of Law Craig Futterman, who founded the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School; People’s Law Office founding partner Flint Taylor; actor Charles Gardner, who portrays torture victim Otha Jeffries in My Kind of Town; and the playwright Conroy. Kelly Kleiman of WBEZ Radio will moderate.
Before the conversation begins, the Timeline cast of My Kind of Town will perform an excerpt from the play to spark the discussion and provide an opportunity for audience questions and dialogue.
Director Bowling has seen his role in adapting Conroy’s work into the play as helping the journalist add more theatricality to the story. “In the beginning it was almost cinematic. The action took place over 25 years, which is very difficult to represent on stage,” Bowling says. “What I tried to do was help John to compress the story into a 10-year period and try to really balance its two sides.”
Bowling admits that some give and take was necessary along the way. “As a director, I like to think that I know what’s right for this play. But the truth is I don’t necessarily know what is right for this story and for these characters,” he says. “John reminded me that the importance of the truth trumps the importance of theatricality.”
For Conroy, this process was sometimes difficult and required placing a great deal of trust in Bowling and the other members of the company.
“It has been a really enlightening process, watching favorite passages get excised. It’s like walking into a barbershop thinking you’re getting a trim and coming out and finding you’re a skinhead,” he says. “But they are such great people that you want to trust them, and I think the play is stronger for it.”
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