The Khe Sanh Bagman

Center Theater

By Kelly Kleiman

When the Democrats came back to Chicago in 1996, there were rumors of police officers sporting T-shirts printed for the occasion: “I kicked your father’s ass and I can kick yours, too!” The humor was lost on the national press, which gravely reported the apocryphal shirts as a sign of the ferocity with which the Chicago cop–that mythical beast–could hold a grudge. But the story seemed an affectionate in-joke to lakefront liberals, even though their experience with the police in 1968 had been no laughing matter.

The same local-joke sensibility informs–and ultimately undermines–The Khe Sanh Bagman, an evening of three one-acts by Leigh Johnson now receiving its world premiere at Center Theater. Set in Chicago in the six months leading up to the 1968 convention, these works illustrate our town’s exceptionalist view of itself: rules that hold everywhere else, whether against violent police actions or for honest government, simply don’t apply here. As a toga-clad Richard J. Daley says in the final one-act, “This is Chicago, and we have our own way of handling things.”

What’s ironic is that Johnson himself should have fallen into the trap he identifies so clearly. His fond portraits shade far too readily into mindless boosterism, reinforced by nostalgia for the bad old days. Though this phenomenon isn’t unique to Chicago, it’s particularly acute here, as Mike Royko documented in Boss: even the Chicagoans who considered the first Daley an asshole cut him considerable slack because he was our asshole.

Nor has much changed: when I first saw Bill Daley at the head of Al Gore’s challenge team in Florida, my thought was “Oh good, they’ve got themselves a Chicagoan–somebody who really knows how to steal an election.” But if a Chicagoan, or anyone else, ever actually managed to do so, that would not be a joke or an accomplishment but a disgrace. And by the same token, if working-class white Chicagoans actually punctuated their conversations with the word “nigger,” as Johnson’s script suggests, that’s not something deserving of a nostalgic pass.

It’s not that playwrights shouldn’t use the term, but they should remember how much weight it carries. I remembered when the African-American woman sitting next to me on opening night flinched every time it was used. Even in 1967-’68, white people didn’t say “nigger” to black people’s faces unless they were spoiling for a fight.

What’s important to remember about the bad old days is not that they were old–or that we were young–but that they were bad. But Johnson appears to forget that as he glories in Chicago’s exceptionalism. The first play, “Light” (referring to an undesirable condition of payoff envelopes), nearly wallows in Chicago patois for political support: “Chinaman,” “rabbi,” “the man on five.” True, the secret language of patronage is lovely, concealing the truth that people get municipal support not if they pay taxes but if they pay bribes, and then only if they’re properly deferential and the right color. And these terms for clout aren’t used in error. But they’re produced with a little too much flourish.

Johnson’s hero in “Light” is Mike (Richard Henzel), a payoff-taking cop and casual racist who, when he hears that his black precinct captain, Sing (Cedric Young), is attending a teenager’s funeral, presumes the young man was a gangbanger (in fact he was a marine). But you haven’t met this lovable a curmudgeon since Andy Sipowicz. When Sing worries aloud about the “loss of the faith that we’re all in this together,” Mike listens and responds with undeniable warmth and good faith. That tenderness of characterization is both the strength and weakness of “Light.” It makes you care about these two tired, puzzled men groping for understanding but also offers false hope about the likelihood of their finding it. When Mike and Sing unite to trick the blatant racist Sal (John Kooi), it’s easy to imagine that respect between individuals is all it takes to root out institutionalized racism and corruption–because this is Chicago.

The city’s supposed unique wisdom and virtue also appear in “Boys in the Valley,” which imagines a meeting between Lyndon B. Johnson (the protean Henzel) and Richard J. Daley (Jeff Still in an exceptional performance). The president tries to rationalize the upcoming battle at Khe Sanh, but the Sage of City Hall is having none of it: “Our boys are in the valley, and theirs are in the hills? When I see a western, it’s always bad if the cowboys are in the valley and the Indians up in the hills.” This nostalgic, boosterish conception of Daley as the embodiment of salt-of-the-earth antiwar sanity–like the inappropriate use of the word “nigger”–is simply ahistorical. (By contrast, Daley sounds not merely believable but positively contemporary when he observes, “If we’ve got the numbers, we win. If we don’t got the numbers, and we can’t get the numbers, pack it in–tomorrow’s another day.”)

“‘Tink of the Rake-Off” is set in the same period as the first two plays but hardly belongs in the same evening. While “Light” and “Boys in the Valley” grapple with ideas, this work simply stages a gag, as the mayor and a few politicos listen to a Rand Corporation analyst read recommendations about how to manage threats to disrupt the convention. The staging is strong, especially the synchronized sycophancy of Daley’s three stooges, who stand, sit, turn their thumbs down, cross their legs, and play Frank Sinatra’s “Chicago” on the kazoo, all in perfect unison. And Katherine Loague’s costumes are right on the mark, including plaid pants for the alderman. But Johnson’s politicians are too venal and stupid to be interesting targets: they worry that hippies plan to put Listerine in the city’s water supply and promote schemes to charge protesters for sleeping space in the parks and the use of portable toilets, which would be supplied by one stooge’s brothers-in-law. Johnson also fails to exploit a wonderful term he unearths: “peripheral contact monitoring,” the soft-touch strategy recommended (and of course not used) for policing the convention. A play about the many possible meanings of peripheral contact monitoring in a town built on contacts and on keeping track of information might be wonderful, but this isn’t that play.

Every playwright should pray to the theater gods for a director like Peter Garino and a company of actors like this one, particularly Henzel, Young, and Still. Every moment of genuine emotion in the script gets its due, whether it’s Sing’s recollection of watching sharecroppers listen to Franklin Roosevelt–taken in by racist cop Mike with tears in his eyes–or the mayor’s subtle but extended flinch as President Johnson goes into horrifying detail about his kidney stones. Andrew Powdermaker’s set design is period perfect, down to the transistor radio behind Mike’s desk. Garino’s music choices are wonderfully evocative, from the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Find the Cost of Freedom” and Graham Nash’s “Chicago.” No matter how familiar, a golden-oldies sound track still has the power to move.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.