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Kosovo: The Musical

A Chicago law professor’s service in the war-torn Balkans leads to a local premiere.

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On one of his early trips to Kosovo, Henry "Hank" H. Perritt Jr. struck up a conversation with a waiter who turned out to have been a member of the clandestine guerrilla force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. The waiter said he'd decided to join the rebel group after Serbian police stopped him on his way home from school one day, noticed that he was carrying a book written in Albanian, and made him tear out the pages and eat them. It was just one more incident in the long blood feud between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars, but it helped get Perritt, a professor at IIT's Chicago-Kent College of Law, hooked on the cause.

He ended up writing two academic tomes. Kosovo Liberation Army: The Inside Story of an Insurgency was published last year by University of Illinois Press and The Road to Independence for Kosovo: A Chronicle of the Ahtisaari Plan will be released in August by Cambridge University Press.

And now, for good measure, he's penned a rock opera about the place, You Took Away My Flag, which opens June 12 for a two-weekend, four-performance run at Strawdog Theatre.

Kosovo is a diamond-shaped splat in the Balkans, 55 miles across at its broadest point, separated by rugged peaks from the surrounding countries of Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Six centuries ago, this remote plateau was the site of a bloody battle at which the Turks defeated the Serb empire. According to Serbian legend, this occurred because the Serbian czar, Lazar, chose the eternal realm of heaven over the earthly prize he would have won if he'd really taken on the Turks. Kosovo's population of two million is now about 90 percent Albanian and mostly Muslim, but it was the birthplace of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Serbs regard it as the cradle of their national identity—their Jerusalem.

Hank Perritt with the cast of You Took Away My Flag - PAUL L. MERIDETH

In 1912, Kosovo was annexed to Serbia, which eventually became part of Tito's Yugoslavia. Starting in the late 1980s, Slobodan Milosevic, the demagogic Serbian president, came to power, reigniting old prejudices and subjecting Kosovo's Albanians to a harshly repressive rule. That gave rise to the Kosovo Liberation Army, and an insurgency. In 1999, NATO intervened with a bombing assault that drove Milosevic's troops out and turned Kosovo into an international protectorate. Westerners streamed in to help the Kosovars rebuild their devastated territory, including teams of students from IIT led by Perritt, who'd made his first trip there in 1998, just before the intervention.

The waiter's tale of abuse and others like it reminded Perritt, 64, of the oppression he witnessed as a child in the American south. The son of liberal southern Democrats—his father was also a college professor—Perritt grew up in Birmingham, got a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's in management from MIT, and worked for Lockheed for three years before enrolling in Georgetown University's law school. He joined the Republican Party in college (a case of adolescent rebellion, he says), and landed a Nixon administration job as executive secretary of the Cost of Living Council. When Gerald Ford took over the presidency, Perritt became deputy undersecretary of labor. After that, he spent five years as the top labor lawyer at Conrail. From 1981 to 1997, he was a law professor at Villanova University, and in '97 he came to Chicago as dean of Chicago-Kent.

His days as a Republican ended abruptly with what he calls Pat Buchanan's "racist, homophobic, nativist speech" at the 1992 Republican convention. "When I heard that, I said 'I'm not a Republican anymore,'" Perritt says. His rebirth as a Democrat was solidified when he was invited to join Bill Clinton's transition team.

After his move to Chicago, Perritt campaigned for Al Gore and Rod Blagojevich ("a huge disappointment even before we found out he seems to be a crook"), and met former Democratic National Committee chair David Wilhelm, who was then Blago's campaign manager. "I was having lunch with David in the fall of 2001, and he said, 'You know, you oughta think about running for Congress in the Tenth District,'" Perritt says. "I was getting close to the end of my term as dean, and I wasn't sure I wanted another one, so I thought about it for 45 seconds and said, 'Yeah, that's an interesting idea.'"

In fact, what the Democrats were looking for was a sacrificial lamb in a race they had all but conceded to Mark Kirk. In retrospect, says Perritt, who ran in opposition to an invasion of Iraq, "I don't think I appreciated how difficult it is to beat an incumbent. It was a great experience. I'm really glad I did it. But I underestimated how difficult it would be to get people to pay attention to me. It was a struggle to get people to take my campaign seriously. The word on the street was that nobody could beat Kirk, and, therefore, even though I had a pretty good resumé and worked hard, I got about 57,000 votes—which is very gratifying but wasn't nearly enough." Kirk rolled to victory by a margin of two to one.

Perritt started taking students to Kosovo when Richard Holbrooke, then Clinton's special envoy to Kosovo, suggested that they could help with refugee relief efforts by setting up Internet technology there. The U.S. Information Agency funded some of the students' travel. Perritt says, "Law students, and sometimes undergraduates from IIT, would go to Kosovo two or three times a year to help with various small projects—legal education, political party development, economic development." While Perritt maintains he wasn't working for the CIA, he adds the classic caveat, "But I wouldn't tell you if I was."

As he spent more time in Kosovo, he says, "I was just blown away with the resiliency of the Albanians. Most of them had been driven out of the country by Milosevic, and they just walked back across the mountains as soon as they were able to do so after the NATO bombing campaign. And once they got back, they set up shops, cleaned the windows, painted everything. Young people were flocking back to Kosovo from the U.S. and Germany and Switzerland, excited about the prospect of building their own country."

Rehearsal for You Took Away My Flag - PAUL L. MERIDETH

Resilience in the face of bigotry was something Perritt, who's gay, could relate to. He concealed his own orientation into his 30s, calculatedly assuming a "straight" persona. Even at Villanova, where he shared a home with his partner of nearly 25 years, Mitchell Bergmann, he kept it hidden. "I was afraid because Villanova is a Catholic school," he says; for a long time, "I wasn't out at all." But eventually, "with some trepidation," he and Bergmann hosted a barbecue for his students at their home. The students were fine with it, and that was a significant turning point for him.

But according to Perritt, there were repercussions when he became a candidate for dean at Villanova. He says he was told by a member of the search committee that "one of my colleagues called a senior officer of the university and said, 'You can't have Perritt on that list because he's'—I don't know what word was used, but basically—'because he's queer.'" The senior officer "called me," Perritt recalls, "and said 'I just want to notify you that you've been removed from the list.'" No explanation was offered. "As it happened, within a couple of days I got a call from the search committee at Chicago-Kent," he says. Perritt, whose engineering background has given him a specialty in the overlap between technology and the law, had worked with Kent ("one of the first law schools to take small computers seriously") and had been approached the last time they'd been looking for a dean, in the early 90s. "I wasn't interested then," he says. "This time I said, 'Yeah, put me on the list.'"

You Took Away My Flag is a vanity project, written from Perritt's heart and funded out of his own pocket. Directed by Tyler Condon—whom Perritt found on Craigslist—it has a cast of a dozen, mostly young performers. The original budget was $10,000, but Perritt now thinks "it's probably going to cost twice that." He figures to recoup a little on ticket sales at $22.50 a head, but it's not going to be profitable, and he says profit's not the goal. Perritt wanted to pay tribute to the KLA struggle, and hopes to get the show performed in Kosovo. There's no tradition of musical theater there, he says, but so what? A bigger problem, he thinks, will be the star-crossed interethnic romance he put at the center of the story. His Romeo and Juliet-esque plot, in which Vjosa, an Albanian girl, falls for Dragan, a young Serbian policeman, hasn't played well with the Kosovars he's run it past so far. "When I was over there last year and showed them the script, they wanted me to take it out." Of course, he says, "I couldn't." As for intimations that Vjosa's younger brother Arian is involved in a gay relationship, "it's a minor subplot. Not everybody notices."

With the exception of a single scene set in Chicago (where the population of Serbian descendants in the area is estimated at 300,000, versus about 15,000 of Albanian ancestry), You Took Away My Flag takes place in Kosovo in the late 1990s, before the UN invasion. If it turns out to be more Les Miz than Springtime for Hitler, its two acts, 14 scenes, and 37 songs (with titles like "Shell Them and Bomb Them" and "Shoot Them All") will bring the tragedy of Serb/Albanian enmity to life through the ordeal of a single family.

Though he's recorded two CDs of original "law rock" and started his own label, Modofac, to distribute them, Perritt took his first piano lesson only six years ago—right about the time he lost the Tenth District race—and his previous musical experience was limited to playing clarinet in his high school band nearly 50 years ago. A fan of bands like Vampire Weekend, the Decemberists, and Green Day, he wrote all the songs in You Took Away My Flag himself, then turned to producer Tim Sandusky—who'd worked with him on the two CDs—for arrangements. Perritt says it was Sandusky who suggested, about a year ago, that the Kosovo-inspired songs he was writing might work as a rock opera.

You Took Away My Flag got a reading last fall at the Theater Building before an audience of about 35 people. For Perritt—who's written 18 books on employment law, international law, and the law and technology, as well as 85 law review articles—that ragtag run-through was thrilling. "I will never forget, when we were rehearsing for it, what it felt like the first time the actors got up on the stage and sang a song that I had written. To hear it coming back at me, that was an unbelievable feeling," he says. He revised heavily on the basis of the feedback from the reading, working "to get the lyrics to be in the voices of the characters, as opposed to my voice," and adjusting "the balance between the geopolitics and the human part of the story." He also saw that "the music needed to be arranged in a more sophisticated way," and thinks his musical collaborators—Sandusky, music director Alex Rowney, and music supervisor Myron Silberstein—have taken care of it. He'll get a verdict on all of that come opening night.

The jury's still out on Kosovo, too. Perritt counts three main challenges for the republic, which became independent in February 2008: Serbia and Russia "are actively trying to sabotage this nationhood gig" by discouraging Kosovar Serbs from cooperating with the new government. Then there's the puzzle of how to create a sustainable economy in a tiny, landlocked country that, though its people are entrepreneurial, lacks "a history of being competitive in any particular industry." And finally, there's the intergenerational struggle in a culture traditionally led by its elders. Although young people are better educated than their parents, it's difficult for them to get into positions of influence, and they tend to get sidelined by the political parties. "There's irony in this," Perritt says, "because it was the youngsters"—like his fictional Arian—"who won Kosovo's freedom."   v

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