Her Honor Jane Byrne, a fascinating play about Chicago politics and racism, falls victim to Coronavirus

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association; photos by Liz Lauren.

Note: This play has been canceled due to the coronavirus; however, the cast and crew worked hard and deserve to be reviewed anyway.

I voted for Jane Byrne in 1979, when she successfully ran to replace the utterly ineffectual Michael Bilandic as Chicago mayor. She rode to power on the back of the Blizzard of ‘79, a Century Storm that Bilandic’s people were woefully unprepared for. She promised that, though she was a protegé of (the original) Mayor Daley, she would work to clean up the parts of the City That Works that didn’t work quite so well. In the area of gang violence, she was well-meaning, but rather näive. After an explosion of fighting at the infamous Cabrini-Green housing development that had left ten gang members dead, she decided to move into the complex herself, hoping that the city services that would follow her there would ultimately curb the violence and change lives for the better. Of course, the issues were far too complicated and ran too deep for any one person to change them.

J. Nicole Brooks’ Her Honor Jane Byrne examines this fascinating moment in Chicago’s history from multiple perspectives: yes, we see it through the eyes of Mayor Byrne (Christine Mary Dunford in a compelling performance), but we also see it from the point of view of the people of Cabrini-Green, and it is their reflections that make this play powerful. Byrne’s publicity stunt (and there is no doubt and was none then that this was a publicity stunt) may well have been meant sincerely—Brooks and Dunford seem to believe so—but this Hyde Park-raised White woman really had no clue what daily life was about for the people of the inner city. And she also had no idea of the forces that she was up against.

From the beginning, we can see that (though she may have had at least the public support of her police superintendent) the rank and file cops were not on her side. (At one point we are told that fully one quarter of them were calling in sick.) Also not on her side was the weaselly alderman (and a running joke suggests that there may well be no other kind) Fred Roti, played by Thomas J. Cox, who did not like her usurping his control over his district. But perhaps her biggest roadblocks were the people she was trying to help themselves. The residents of Cabrini-Green were justifiably wary of this White savior, and she ultimately proved as disappointing as they feared. 

The residents are mostly represented by four figures here: the highly sympathetic, grandmotherly Mabel Foley (a highly sympathetic Renee Lockett); the young Tiger (Nicole Michelle Haskins, showing a lot of range), who is at first vitriolic about the whole thing but then allows herself to be persuaded of Byrne’s good intentions; and the street entrepreneur Black Che (Robert Cornelius, having a great time, especially when toying with a reporter played by Tracy Walsh); and the perpetually angry Kid (Willie “Mudlife Roc” Round). Then there is the adamantly militant Marion Stamps, a community activist fighting for the rights of these residents who became one of Byrne’s most vocal opponents in this whole affair. 

Brooks, who also directs the play, describes it as a play that “joins history to myth.” It is not intended to be truly accurate even though some of it was based on interviews with people who lived through it. It is constructed as a collage-like series of scenes, some realistic and some (like those showing the relationship Byrne had with her dead husband) not so much. (These more surreal scenes really don’t work as well as the others, weighing the play down for little real payback. Brooks would have been well-advised to remain in the realistic present.) Still, what she shows us is impressive. On a Yu Shibagaki set featuring what seem like dozens of TV screens (with projections by Rasean Davonte Jonhson) and a single, highly flexible, revolving wall, she conjures several locations and an entire culture that most, if indeed not all, of her Michigan Avenue audience have never directly experienced, reminding us that we are all just people trying our best to live our lives.

This play deserved a better chance to live than our pandemic-focused era allowed it. Brooks and her cast took a single action from 1981 and recreated the era from it, including a flawed but fascinating mayor. It’s too bad that it did not have a chance to be seen; perhaps Lookingglass will consider bringing it back in a year or two.

Her Honor Jane Byrne is now playing at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, Chicago, IL, until Apr 12. The show runs approximately 2:30; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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