John Conroy
John Conroy Credit: Kathy Richland

The trial of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, slated to begin later this month, has been postponed until January. We’ll have to wait till then to see if Burge is found guilty of lying under oath about the interrogations-by-torture he allegedly conducted at Area Two headquarters in the 1980s. But on October 12, we can get a look at the latest work on the subject of police torture by John Conroy, whose reporting in the Reader exposed a situation that for many years no one else wanted to talk or write about. Conroy won’t be adding to his basket of awards for investigative journalism with this piece, however: if it wins a Pulitzer, it’ll be in the drama category. In My Kind of Town, Conroy’s maiden voyage as a playwright, the diligent journalist boils two decades of reporting on torture down to a dramatic core—a play in two acts. It’s part of the Writers’ Bloc reading series at the Theatre Building.

Conroy says it was a suggestion from an editor that started him on the torture trail, more of a business decision than a mission. In 1987, Beacon Press had published Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, a book he’d written about the troubles in Northern Ireland, where the British had codified the Five [Torture] Techniques and the IRA was handling juvenile delinquents with a bullet to the kneecap. Knopf editor Ann Close read it and in 1988 proposed that Conroy write a book on torture. His first foray into the subject was an article on Uptown’s Kovler Center for the Treatment of Victims (now “Survivors”) of Torture published that year in the Reader, where he was a staff writer. Meanwhile, a friend who worked for Chicago Lawyer called his attention to cop killer Andrew Wilson, who said he’d been tortured by police and whose case was coming up in federal court. Conroy says he “went down and sat in the courtroom on the first day thinking this guy had no shot at all.” Wilson was a “career criminal,” who was accusing “these outstanding detectives, with many commendations, one of whom had been decorated for valor in Vietnam.” And then, he says, “the whole thing unraveled.” The Wilson case led to dozens of accusations of torture against Burge and officers working under his command.

When the Reader published the Wilson story, “House of Screams,” in 1990 “we thought that would be the only story,” Conroy says, “that everybody else would just take it and run with it—and then nobody did.” Even when Burge got fired over the allegations, in 1993, and “everyone in the city knew that guys had been abused at Area Two,” it was only covered by other media as a one-day story, Conroy says. He stuck with it, producing one scrupulously detailed story after another—a total of 22 in 17 years—addressing the effects of torture on victims and the complicity of the prosecutors. His book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, which looks at torture globally, focusing on Northern Ireland and Israel as well as Chicago, was published by Knopf in 2000.

In the fall of 2007, Conroy got a call from Indiana-based director/producer John Hancock, who said he was interested in the Burge story and wondered if Conroy wanted to write a play about it. Conroy—in part “because I liked Hancock and in part because I didn’t want anybody else to do it,” he says—began writing. He started sending bits to Hancock for feedback, and, laid off in December, when the Reader downsized after it was sold, joined the Writers’ Bloc, a group of Chicago-area playwrights. The play had a reading in December 2008 at the 16th Street Theatre, cast by Hancock. There weren’t many people in attendance, Conroy says, but the actors made suggestions, and “I started to realize how much more collaborative writing for theater is than writing for magazines or a book.” That, he says, “has really been good.” There was a second reading in July, at Steppenwolf with a cast put together by Erica Daniels. A master of long-form factual exposition, Conroy is surprisingly enthusiastic about the very different constraints and freedoms of theater—the need to bring everything out through dialogue, to be concise, to entertain—and says he loves the process. He says it’s “so much fun, I could do it all day,” though he’s seldom been able to devote a full day to it.

Conroy, who started college intending to be a stockbroker, says writing about torture turned out to be a bad business decision and “is no way to support a family and send a couple of kids to college.” Unspeakable Acts is still out there, in hardcover and paperback, but the Belfast book sells better. Meanwhile, Hancock told Conroy he wouldn’t be mounting My Kind of Town, leaving Conroy with a product to market in a business he knows little about.

Last year Conroy was mugged by a teenager on the west side. As he told it in an article in the September issue of Chicago magazine, he was riding his bike on Lake Street when the kid stepped off the curb and clocked him, leaving him battered and in need of knee surgery. He says he’s come to think of it as “a meaningless act,” maybe just a form of teenage rebellion, and says his own search for a motive that would make it meaningful was foolish, “not the way the universe works.” The only thing that’s clear about it, he says, is this: “If I had a job and this kid had a job neither of us would have been there.”

Though he failed to find meaning in his own victimization, he knows what he wants to say about police torture: “I want the audience to feel implicated.” We know what the police officers are accused of. But almost all of the other characters in the play—from the detectives’ families to the rookie state’s attorney taking a break on a fire escape on her first visit to Area 2 headquarters—are turning a blind eye. That’s not hard for me to relate to. In 1982 I was a City News Bureau police reporter. I wasn’t at Area 2 on the midnight shift, where the action in Conroy’s play takes place. But I was stationed at the area headquarters on Harrison and on Belmont, working at desks not far from the interrogation rooms. I never heard anything startling from them. But did I ever hear anything?

Most of the Steppenwolf cast returns for Monday’s reading of My Kind of Town. Conroy says he learned some things from the Steppenwolf reading, though there wasn’t time for a discussion after it. “At this one, he says, I’m hoping people will hang around and talk about the play and I’ll learn some more things about it. And then I’ll try to figure out what to do with it.”