In Her Honor Jane Byrne, Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object 

*Another look at Lookinglass Theatre’s take on Jane Byrne*

It’s fantastic, really, but it’s not quite what you think. You see the play’s title, Her Honor Jane Byrne, and you think… historical bio play about the first woman elected mayor of Chicago.  

We’ve seen this type of show before, right? The familiar tale of a brave trailblazer, complicated and misunderstood, not perfect but willing to put herself out there to make a difference and show us what’s possible. 

And Your Honor Jane Byrne is that play… for about ten minutes. Then it’s so much more. 

So what is it?

Here’s the bottom line, Jane Byrne style–the set and sound design are amazing, the acting is lights-out good, and the trip back in time to Chicago 1981 is a gritty, funk-filled vibe, but what makes this one of the most compelling theater experiences of the season–a show that will wow audiences and critics, alike–is the brilliant bait and switch. 

Her Honor Jane Byrne pulls us in with the story of a tough-as-nails, against-all-odds, unlikely, unstoppable force of a mayor, then delivers the goods when Byrne barrels headlong into the immovable object that is the poverty-plagued, crime-ridden Chicago projects. Here she finds no easy answers, just resilient folks fighting to make things right. 

Lookingglass ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks’s award-winning play premiered on March 20 to rave reviews and then promptly closed down with the rest of the city due to the pandemic. Now, with a few cast changes and COVID safety measures, Brooks’s brilliant play is back, re-premiering this week at Lookingglass.

Her Honor Jane Byrne tells the story of the tumultuous 25 days Byrne spent living in Cabrini-Green, a notorious housing project on the city’s near north side that, like Byrne’s idea to move in, began with good intentions and ended like a bad dream. Originally constructed as a model for affordable, safe, comfortable public housing, the projects suffered from years of neglect and decay. After more than thirty-seven shootings resulting in eleven murders between January and March of 1981, Byrne announced she was moving in. 

Christine Mary Dunford plays Byrne, the strong-willed mayor with a reputation for taking on corruption and crime. She arrives at Cabrini-Green, snapping her fingers and plowing her way through the obstacles that stand in her way, but Dunford’s Byrne is more than a bulldozer. In a rich and complicated performance, Dunford shows us another side of the mayor, plagued by doubt and frustration, still grieving as she navigates the impossible world of Chicago politics. We see Byrne the hero fighting to change the city for the better. She hosts fiery community meetings with Cabrini residents and phones crime bosses in the middle of the night to deliver threats. But then Dunford and Brooks give us Byrne’s human side, sneaking cigarettes, swigging whiskey, shaking with anxiety, and pining for her dead first husband in the middle of the night.

Herein lies the duality of both the Mayor and the Chicago projects. Byrne’s move to Cabrini is both political and humanitarian. She fights to make it work while running away. The residents welcome Byrne and push her away. And, as they begin to realize the new reality, they challenge and/or put their hopes in Byrne, as they deliver the lessons she–and we–need. 

Robert Cornelius plays Black Che, a book-seller, dispenser of wisdom, and public housing oral-historian of sorts who sets the stage for the coming showdown as he educates a white reporter (Emily Anderson) about the violence and inner strength of the people of Cabrini. Nicole Michelle Haskins plays Tiger, a teenager living on her own with a troubled life story, struggling to get past the broken elevator so she can get to work. In her role as Mabel Foley, Renee Lockett brings another element of connection to Byrne’s time in Cabrini-Green, welcoming the mayor and encouraging her to turn things around and keep faith alive. 

In a trio of exceptional performances, Cornelius brings wisdom, Haskins brings common sense, and Lockett brings hope, but it’s Marion Stamps, Byrne’s tenacious teacher and eventual foil, the longtime activist and self-avowed Black mother of the projects, who sees through the Mayor’s change of address to the heart of the political stunt, painting the move as a worthless disruption ushering in the rise of the police state. In her role as Stamps, Sydney Charles gives an extraordinary performance that highlights injustice and hypocrisy and resonates with truth. Charles, as Stamps, explodes the notion that Byrne might move in and, somehow just by her presence alone, correct decades of systemic poverty, neglect, and violence. 

Dunford and Charles are brilliant together, as the conflict that lies at the heart of the play, builds. We keep allowing for the possibility that Stamps might compromise, embrace Byrne, and reconcile herself to the mayor and her good intentions, Still waiting… 

Soon, with her second husband and good-natured confidant and advisor, Jay McMullen, played skillfully by Frank Nall, Byrne realizes the harsh reality of life in Cabrini-Green, and she starts to slip away at night to sleep at home.

By looking at Byrne through the lens of the projects, Brooks takes what we think might be the standard hero story and throws in a heavy hint of the white savior story–a racial reconciliation tale like Green Book or The Help. Got a problem with intergenerational poverty created by systemic racial inequity and injustice turbocharged by the ill-conceived and ill-fated stacking of the urban poor? Here comes Mayor Byrne, moving in to make it all right! 

But that’s not the story we want, and, with Her Honor Jane Byrne, that’s most definitely not the story we get. Brooks breaks down and then rebuilds a pair of legacies: the ground-breaking mayor, who also happened to be a complicated and conflicted soul, and the residents who spent their days and nights living in an infamous symbol of poverty and neglect, fighting each day to make both their lives and neighborhood a little better.  

Her Honor Jane Byrne runs through December 19th at the Lookingglass Theatre. You can get tickets at lookingglasstheatre.org,

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