Stages

Review: At Lookingglass Theatre, Her Honor Jane Byrne Tells the Story of Chicago Public Housing and Its People

The cast of Her Honor Jane Byrne. Phoo by Liz Lauren.

Jane Byrne, whose name is enshrined in an expressway interchange, was Chicago’s first female mayor. She probably deserves a better memorial and J. Nicole Brooks’ play, Her Honor Jane Byrne, may be it.

Brooks also directs this fast-moving, high-tech production at Lookingglass Theatre. It’s the story of a brief period during Byrne’s mayoral term, which is freighted with Chicago’s dark past and present of gun violence and death in the Black community. Her Honor Jane Byrne had its premier staging and a brief run just as the pandemic began in March 2020. This production features some of the same cast. Byrne is played again by Christine Mary Dunford, whose performance is stunningly patterned to match Byrne’s style and mannerisms.

As the play opens in spring 1981, there have been 37 shootings and 11 homicides in Cabrini Green in less than three months. It’s the middle of Byrne’s mayoral term and she makes an unannounced visit to Cabrini Green to confront police superintendent Brzczek (Josh Odor). With her is Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) president Charles Swibel (Raymond Fox), who is not exactly comfortable being on his authority’s property, even with police presence,

The title, Her Honor Jane Byrne, recognizes the late mayor. (She ran for re-election in spring 1983 and lost; she died in 2014 after a stroke.) But the story really belongs to the Cabrini Green residents who persistently demand change in their community and are always candid in telling the mayor what they think and what she and the city should do about it. Chief among the Cabrini Green crew are Black Che (a colorful and vibrant Robert Cornelius) and Marion Stamps (a vociferous Sydney Charles), who was active with the Black Panthers and tells Byrne the story of how Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered in their beds in a police raid ordered by state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan in December 1969.

Renee Lockett plays Mabel Foley, whose approach to getting the mayor’s support is softer but no less demanding, and Nicole Michelle Haskins as Tiger, a teenager whose conversation with the mayor gets her attention.

A view of the projection design. Dunston as Byrne with Olivia Ellery, a member of the stage crew. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The play focuses on Byrne’s dramatic action in 1981 to move into an apartment in Cabrini Green and stay there, she promises, until she finds solutions to the crime and violence. Her efforts include confronting First Ward Alderman Fred Roti (also played by Fox) to demand he use his influence to stop drug traffic, pushing Swibel to improve conditions in CHA properties, meeting with residents, and organizing an Easter party for children and families. (In fact, she lived there for just a few weeks and probably never spent a night there. Her husband, Jay McMullen, played by Frank Nall, is there with her.)

At the time of the Cabrini Green move, I was working for the Montgomery Ward corporate PR department. Ward’s headquarters were across the street from the Chicago Avenue side of Cabrini Green and a few blocks from Byrne’s short-term residence. My role at Ward’s included PR support for the home furnishings department, so my boss assigned me to work with the furniture people to get Byrne’s apartment furnished. When I complained that I needed more information because I didn’t know what style of furnishings the mayor would prefer, my boss said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just fill it up with furniture. She’s not going to spend much time there.”

The Byrne/McMullen apartment, part of the scenic design by Yu Shibagaki, features a clever foldup bed that flips into a kitchen/dining wall. The key elements of the two-level design are the projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson with lighting by Christine A. Binder and sound designed by Christopher M. LaPorte. Michael Huey composed the original music and arranged the score. Mieka Van Der Ploeg is costume designer; her designs for Black Che are spectacular and period-appropriate. Brooks’ script won the 2021 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award.

The excellent cast is made up of 10 actors and many of them play multiple, uncredited roles. Lookingglass’s virtual program provides minimal information and does not identify most of the roles played, for instance, by Nall, Fox, Cornelius, Odor, Haskins and Lockett. I appreciate the reason for the use of virtual programs, but they don’t give the credit due to these performers for their super-quick costume changes and versatile performances. And for a theater reviewer, the virtual program is inconvenient to deal with, especially while writing a review.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the history of Chicago public housing and its people, the virtual program gives a brief history. An excellent adjunct to Her Honor Jane Byrne is The Project(s), a documentary-style play featuring extensive interviews with the residents of Chicago’s public housing projects, and how they found community in their CHA homes. The Project(s) was first produced in 2015 by the now defunct American Theater Company. Stage Left Theatre created a livestreamed production a year ago. You can see short videos by four of the actors from the Stage Left production talking about their experiences with the play and Chicago public housing.

The most accessible history of the subject is a New York Times Magazine article from 2018 by Chicago author Ben Austen, also author of the 2019 book High-Risers: Cabrini Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, from which the article is adapted.

Her Honor Jane Byrne continues thru December 19 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave., In the old Water Works building. Tickets are $60-$70. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. The theater’s Covid protocols require proof of vaccination and mask-wearing throughout your time in the building.

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