“This ain’t Walter Lee Younger’s Chicago no more,” declares Black Che (Robert Cornelius), a sort of griot of the housing projects in J. Nicole Brooks’s Her Honor Jane Byrne, now receiving a rich, riotous, and soul-searching world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre. The play focuses specifically on the three weeks in 1981 when Jane Byrne—the first woman elected mayor of a major city in the U.S.—moved to an apartment in Cabrini-Green to highlight the poor living conditions in the projects. But the play’s emotional and moral timeline encompasses so many other elements that, while certainly very different in tone and narrative structure from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (set 20 years earlier than the events depicted here), it shares the same through line as Hansberry’s Younger family when it comes to the festering racism that scars this city to its marrow.
Though Christine Mary Dunford plays the title role with an arresting mix of forthrightness, fear, and hubris, this play isn’t really about Byrne. We do get some insight into how the early losses she faced shaped her and stiffened her spine. Byrne’s first husband, William, was a Marine pilot who died in a crash near Glenview in 1959, leaving her a young widow with a toddler daughter. His ghostly presence, played by Josh Odor, shows up in times of trouble for her in the play, and also serves as a noble counterpart to Jay McMullen (Frank Nall), her somewhat-clownish second spouse.
Dunford’s Byrne functions a bit like Tommy Carcetti, the ambitious and putatively reform-minded Baltimore mayor in HBO’s The Wire. And just as that show was slapped with the label “Dickensian,” one is tempted to do the same with Her Honor Jane Byrne, which is stuffed to the gills with powerbrokers, hustlers, and everyday people, trying to figure out how to live together. But Byrne ultimately comes across as more naive than Carcetti-calculating. Was the move to Cabrini a publicity stunt? Sure, but publicity stunts can reap public benefits. The problem, as Brooks anatomizes it here, is that even her mentorship with Richard J. Daley left Byrne unprepared for just how deeply enmeshed the roots of the problems facing her city were.
It’s not just the establishment figures, represented here by glad-handing Charlie Swibel, head of the Chicago Housing Authority, and crooked First Ward alderman Fred Roti (both played with brio by Thomas J. Cox) who get in Byrne’s way. They want things to continue pretty much as they always have. (At one point Cox’s Swibel laments, “I could make this city beautiful if people got out of my way!”) It’s also the residents of Cabrini, who have tons of reasons to distrust the woman who is just the latest politico to seek their votes on thin vows of “this time things will be different.” Marion Stamps (TaRon Patton), a tenants’ rights activist mentored by both Medgar Evers and Black Panther Fred Hampton and deeply scarred by their assassinations, tosses verbal firecrackers at the mayor at a community meeting, reminding her of all the promises unkept and the role that police violence has played in her community—making the increased police presence that accompanies Byrne to Cabrini less than welcome.
Yet as Cornelius’s Che, the most gloriously Dickens-by-way-of-Chicago character onstage, points out to Tracy Walsh’s nameless Reporter, the story in the projects is also “Cain Killed Abel.” Gang violence ruled this turf from its 19th-century days as “Little Hell,” when Irish and Italian immigrants fought for a toehold. (Walsh’s character feels underutilized, though her presence allows Che to go off on some splendid rhetorical flights.) Yet Che also reminds Walsh’s character (who shows up the first time in Cabrini wearing a bulletproof vest under her sweater) that the project is a community—and one that functioned pretty well until white flight kicked in. “Funny how the city works,” he muses. “We all run from each other. Well, they run from us.”
Yu Shibagaki’s set combines the concrete-and-graffiti world of Cabrini with a wall of video monitors on which we see both archival documentary footage and close-ups of the actors. In one particularly moving segment, Tiger (Nicole Michelle Haskins), Che’s niece, is stuck in a broken project elevator, which leads to her losing her job. (Dunford’s Byrne steps in to help her get rehired.) We see only her back to the metal gate facing the stage, but her face, suffused with frustration and rage, fills the monitors. There’s a distinct Brechtian element here as well, with supertitles functioning like chapter headings, such as “Street Tribes, Christians, Liquor Stores, and Lakefront Liberals.”
The entire ensemble, directed by Brooks, makes these characters all larger than life, and yet entirely relatable and human. (Well, other than Nall’s mobster Tony Spilotro, whom Dunford’s Byrne calls in Palm Springs late one night to warn about getting his drugs out of the projects, and who is suitably cold-blooded.) Almost nobody in this story created the conditions they’re dealing with, and though Byrne’s miscalculations around what it takes to fix the problems feel painful, Brooks doesn’t demand that we view her as a cynical woman. Rather, she allows Byrne and everyone else who crosses paths here to be full of life, flawed, and unapologetic.
And though it’s easy to despair at seeing the civic problems in Her Honor Jane Byrne repeat through time, it’s also worth noting that Stamps, 11 years after Byrne’s brief residence, did help negotiate the only citywide (if short-lived) gang truce in Chicago history. Cabrini is gone. Segregation and housing crises remain. But Brooks’s play reminds us that there are still people in this city looking to get into good trouble as they defy history and the odds. v