The newest book from a writer the Reader thinks of as one of our own is actually a play. Chicago Dramaworks has published My Kind of Town, John Conroy’s drama inspired by the police torture scandal identified with former commander Jon Burge.
Conroy examined that slowly-unraveling story in a series of articles published in this paper from 1990 to 2007. He raised questions that not only haunt Chicago still, but thanks to the recent Laquan McDonald scandal do so with renewed force. “Where were the prosecutors?” he asked in a 2003 article, “Deaf to the Screams.” “Could a torture ring exist for nearly two decades without anyone in the state’s attorney’s office noticing?”
In a 2007 story, “The Good Cop,” Conroy profiled an officer who violated the notorious “code of silence” and paid for it. Back in 1981, homicide detective Frank Laverty had contacted attorneys of a murder defendant he knew was being railroaded. After Laverty testified the defendant was acquitted, and his civil suit against the city brought him $800,000 in damages; but Laverty wound up with a desk job that involved watching recruits give urine samples. “The Good Cop” quoted from the unsigned letter to the People’s Law Office in 1989 that eventually led to Burge’s downfall. It was from an inside source offering crucial information, and it said: “I do not want to be involved in this affair. . . . I do not wish to be shunned like Officer Laverty has been. . . “
For economic reasons, Conroy was laid off from the Reader in December 2007. He began work on My Kind of Town the same year. After five years of writing, workshopping, and revising, Conroy’s play was staged in 2012 by TimeLine Theatre as a study in complicity. “This story isn’t so much about the baddest of the bad guys, if you will,” said the director, PJ Powers. (The Burge character had been written out of the play.) “I think it’s more interesting seeing the second, third, and fourth layers of people who turned a blind eye.” Ultimately, and appropriately, the net Conroy cast swept up the audience.
“The play feels like a cri de coeur,“ wrote Tribune critic Chris Jones, insisting that Chicago’s “culture of corruption . . . is morally untenable for a great metropolis. . . . Despite the moral force of this play, and the explosiveness of its content, the tone of ‘My Kind of Town’ is strikingly careful and balanced. We do not see any of the torturing. The tale is told mostly in small scenes of people not quite managing to do the right thing.”
It’s clear from Conroy’s ambivalent ending, Jones went on, that in the writer’s view “the full story has not yet been heard or acted upon.” Today Conroy is senior investigator for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University. The center’s focus is on violations of civil rights, including police misconduct, which—headlines tell us—continues.