For many passing through Chicago the name, Jane Byrne, is nothing more than a constant traffic jam on Interstate 94 as the Dan Ryan transitions to the Kennedy Expressway. With the seemingly endless construction, the traffic fatigue perhaps makes us forget who Jane Byrne was. Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre has not forgotten.

Writer/Director J. Nicole Brooks has penned a play, “Her Honor, Jane Byrne”, that gives us insights into Chicago’s first woman to be elected mayor and one of her premier outreach projects. Jane M. Byrne rose to power in Chicago in an extraordinary way.  She jumped from head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection to mayor after the disastrous winter of 1979 left Mayor Michael Bilandic embarrassed and Chicagoans angry at the many failures of city services. Her four years as mayor from 1979 to 1983 were a memorable era in Chicago politics.

Ms. Brooks does much to capture this era with a focus on Mayor Byrne’s premier community outreach project, her attempts to reform the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing complex. This near north side series of public housing units dates from 1942 and would eventually encompass 55 housing units, ranging from the early low-density apartments to high-density units as high as 19 stories. These high-density add-ons from the late 1950s and early 1960s were the problem as they became havens for gang activity and violent crime.

“Her, Honor, Jane Byrne” does not attempt to analyze her four years as mayor as it focuses’ on her the three weeks in 1981 when she became a reluctant resident of a Cabrini-Green extension on North Sedgwick Avenue. Her 2004 memoir clearly states her reason for this extraordinary move—“How could I put Cabrini-Green on a bigger map?… Suddenly, I knew, I could move in there.”

She would spend many days and nights there for three weeks from March 31 to April 18 of 1981. Ms. Brooks’,  a native Chicagoan herself, presents a vivid portrait of those stormy three weeks when Chicago’s mayor tried to study first hand the issue of the high crime “Projects”, as Chicagoans called them, by living among them. Despite the efforts, Mayor Byrne went through and the stress she endured, many were less than pleased with her tenure at Cabrini-Green.

Brooks’ script and the superlative acting of Christine Mary Dunford as Jane Byrne paint a vivid portrait of an idealistic politician who also has blind spots and an obsession with statistics. Brooks also shows the issues of Cabrini-Green have a much broader context than simply bad management and crime within the housing units.

Much of the story is told by the residents of Cabrini-Green, played with real authenticity and intensity by Renee Lockett, Robert Cornelius, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Willie ”Mudlife Doc” Round, and Taron Patton. Their stories and interplay with Mayor Byrne do much to explain the issues of the stormy there weeks which were both praised as statesmanship and denounced as a publicity stunt.

Brooks leaves the audience to sort most of the good and bad, but her portrait of the lesser Chicago politicians played wonderfully by Thomas J. Cox, is thoroughly and brutally negative. Chicago politics is so often a mixture of idealism, realism and self-serving in its public officials, and Ms. Brooks’, in “Her Honor, Jane Byrne”, captures all of that in just over two hours.

Historical coda—In 1983, Jane Byrne was defeated for reelection by Richard M. Daley. She never held an elective office again. Between 2000 and 2011, all 55 units of Cabrini-Green were demolished and replaced with mixed-income developments.

The Lookingglass Theatre is located in the historic Chicago Pumping Station at 821 North Michigan, just across from Jane M. Byrne Square. “Her Honor, Jane Byrne” will run until April 12. However, in light of the recent developments of the COVID-19, the show is temporarily archived until further notice. We hope to share the experience of seeing this performance with others in the future.

Best to check the website of the company at lookingglasstheatre.org or call the box office a (312) 337-0665 for performance updates.

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Jeff Nelson

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