Law in Popular Culture

Ex-Law School Dean Spins Kosovo Experience Into Rock Opera

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When Hank Perritt first went in 1998 to war-torn Kosovo armed with nothing more than a master’s from MIT and Georgetown University law degree to create databases to track supplies for refugee camps, his friends thought he was brave and dedicated.

He even convinced former Serbian military officers to reveal where landmines were located so he could produce an online mine map. Some friends worried a bit, but none thought he was a crazy risk-taker.

Until now. Perritt, the former dean of Chicago-Kent College of Law, has written a musical about Kosovo. He is funding its debut this week and a repeat performance next week in Chicago’s 73-seat Strawdog Theatre.

“Are you nuts? Who wants to see a musical about a bloody war?” skeptical friends asked.

Perritt promises there will be no tap-dancing soldiers.

“There’s a long history of translating dark matter into rock opera,” explains Perritt. “Les Miserables and Miss Saigon were my models. All my life, I’ve composed music.”

Perritt’s musical You Took Away My Flag focuses on young, ragged Kosovo Liberation Army insurgents battling Serbs. The play’s heart is a Romeo & Juliet-style love story between a Kosovar Albanian girl and Serbian boy.

The KLA youths confront devilish choices. When Islamic extremists who defeated Russia in Afghanistan want to join the mostly Christian KLA, the KLA must decide whether to trust potential enemies. The intricate plot also encompasses NATO officers and diplomats.

Perritt, now the director Chicago-Kent’s graduate program in financial services law, also found his students more than willing to rally around his Flag. Several former law students joined Flag’s cast and helped to make costumes.

Second year Chicago-Kent law student Diana Rdzanek, 25, will play a KLA soldier and the hero’s mother. “Professor Perritt has songs about civil procedure on his website, so I wasn’t too surprised when he told us about the play,” she says, laughing. “Being in it is wonderful! I’m learning to use my voice and demeanor in new ways—which I guess could come handy in a courtroom.”

Perritt is accustomed to long shots. He started his career wanting to unite lawyers and engineers to work together on rule of law projects that use cyberspace. “As late as the 1990s, law firms were telling me: ‘we don’t want our associates using computers; they’re not typists,’ ” Perritt recalls.

Nevertheless, Perritt was the go-to guy for telecommunications on President Bill Clinton’s transition team. Perritt drafted guidelines for electronic dissemination of public information, which eventually became part of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (adopted by Congress in 1996). He took heat as the head of a bipartisan task force in 2000 that reviewed the FBI’s controversial Carnivore, which monitored Internet use by suspected terrorists.

Rdzanek wonders how Perritt found the time to write a rock opera. “He actually reads the papers he grades,” she says.

His book, The Road to Independence for Kosovo, will be published this year by Cambridge University Press. He plans to visit Iraq to help judges and court officers get online. And he plans to continue the piano lessons he began as he ran for Congress in 2002. He lost the race. But his piano playing is improving.

“It’s harder to learn as an adult, but it helps me become a better songwriter,” he explains.

You Took Away My Flag will be performed June 12-13 and 19-20 at Strawdog Theatre at 3829 N. Broadway St. in Chicago.

See the production’s promotional trailer:

Coverage elsewhere:

Chicago Reader: “Kosovo The Musical: A Chicago law professor’s service in the war-torn Balkans leads to a local premiere”

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