Right before the stay-at-home order hit Chicago in March of 2020, Lookingglass Theatre opened Her Honor Jane Byrne, written and directed by ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks. I called that production “a rich, riotous, and soul-searching world premiere,” and mourned its truncated run.
Well, you can’t keep a good show down. After winning the prestigious Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, Brooks’s play is back as the first post-shutdown offering at Lookingglass. There have been a few changes in the cast, just as there have been some monumental changes (but not enough of them) in the world around us since that first outing.
Which makes this play perhaps the most relevant offering currently available in Chicago. Set during the three weeks in 1981 when Byrne, the first woman mayor of the city, moved into an apartment at the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, Brooks’s play is both a time capsule and a cri de coeur asking us to reflect on the necessity of pushing back against the establishment—while also acknowledging how politicians like Byrne had their own struggles with both challenging and assimilating into the boys’ club of machine politics.
Her Honor Jane Byrne
Through 12/19: Wed 7 PM, Thu 1:30 and 7 PM, Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; also 2 PM Fri 11/26; Wed 11/17, 6 PM only; Thu 12/16, 7 PM only; Sat 11/20, 2 PM only; Sun 12/5 and 12/12, 2 PM only; no show Thu 11/25; Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $60-$70.
Christine Mary Dunford returns as Byrne. Sneaking cigarettes, nervously snapping her fingers next to her side as tension mounts all around her (in the first three months of 1981, 11 people were killed and 37 others shot at Cabrini, which provided one of the reasons the mayor gave for moving in), Dunford’s Byrne is both bluntly defiant and at sea. We see her trying to equivocate and negotiate her way through corrupt pols and bureaucrats like First Ward alderman Fred Roti and Chicago Housing Authority chair Charlie Swibel (both nimbly played by Raymond Fox, replacing Thomas J. Cox). For context, Roti was convicted on 11 criminal counts in 1990 and identified in a 1991 report by the U.S. Attorney General as a known member of La Cosa Nostra.
But the residents of Cabrini also have good reasons to distrust Byrne and to assume that her public posturing for reform won’t add up to real change (especially since she and her husband, Jay McMullen, played by Frank Nall, appear to be running home to sleep in their own bed every night). Just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she’s going to be any different than any other white politician. Marion Stamps (the longtime activist who won a short-lived gang truce and who was instrumental in the election of Harold Washington after Byrne) is there to underline every one of those reasons—with a bullhorn, if necessary. Sydney Charles steps into the role originally played by TaRon Patton with bristling energy and sardonic “I’ve heard this story before” panache in her meetings with the mayor.
Robert Cornelius’s Black Che, a street peddler and longtime Cabrini resident, returns to give us short pungent history lessons on the area that was known as “Little Hell” and occupied by Irish immigrants (like Byrne’s ancestors) before the first Mayor Daley built the towers. Renée Lockett as Mabel Foley, a woman trying to keep her grandson (Willie “Prince Roc” Round) out of trouble in Cabrini and willing to give Mayor Byrne a chance, seems like the softer side of community organizing compared to Charles’s firebrand, but she ultimately shows that she too has a spine forged out of decades of oppression and grief.
But just as happened the first time I saw this show, the character who most got their hooks into me is Nicole Michelle Haskins’s Tiger, a young woman living largely on her own and struggling to keep afloat. A scene where she’s trapped in a broken elevator as she attempts to leave Cabrini to go to a new job encapsulates the many ways poverty and neglect perpetuate segregation and oppression, and that those ways are mostly by design.
Cornelius’s Che again reminds us that Cabrini started out OK for his family and others, including Japanese Americans who came to Cabrini after being in U.S. internment camps during World War II. It was white flight (fostered by government programs that favored the white middle class) that decimated too many Black communities. As he tells a white reporter (played by Emily Anderson), “We all run from each other. Well, they run from us.” And as Reader staff writer Adam Rhodes wrote in March of 2021, “While stories of Cabrini-Green’s dangerous history are indeed true, a lesser recognized or outright ignored narrative is one of community, activism, and resilience. And to know Cabrini is to understand that those can both be possible at once.”
“Both things can be true” is the thread running throughout Brooks’s story. We don’t doubt that Dunford’s Byrne is horrified by the gun violence at Cabrini. But Her Honor Jane Byrne leaves us wondering why we would ever think any one person, even one at the top of the political establishment, can ever effect lasting change without playing footsie with the police (hi, Mayor Lightfoot!) and other tools designed to bolster the status quo. Yet at the same time, Brooks and the terrific ensemble have created compassionate and surprisingly uncynical portraits of people on the ground who keep trying to make their community work.