Her Honor Jane Bryne
At the Lookingglass Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago –The Lookingglass Theatre calls its new play “Her Honor Jane Byrne,” naming it for the first female mayor of Chicago, who served the city from 1979 to 1983. Playwright J. Nicole Brooks could more accurately call her drama “Chicago,” even at the risk of confusing audiences with the hit musical of the same name. Byrne is the central character but the heart of the story is the city itself, specifically race relations surrounding the all-black housing project on the city’s north side called Cabrini Green.
Byrne weaves through the play but it’s the portraits of housing project residents that make the narrative come alive. The residents, officially 4,000 and actually maybe 25,000, are the black men and women and youngsters to live in an atmosphere of poverty, violence, frustration and hostility. The play is their story and at its best it is riveting, and tragic.
In 1981, Byrne decided to move into the segregated housing project as a symbolic gesture to reconcile the black residents and the white establishment. Byrne’s residential shift proved a failure. Eventually Cabrini Green was demolished, the final structure removed in 2011. The legacy of poverty, gangs, and drugs continues today in other geographical locales, with reports of shootings within the black community a routine news stream in Chicago media. Byrne may have meant well, but her failure to bridge the racial chasm was predictable, and total.
The most stirring voices in the play are the black mothers who dealt with the shootings of their children and saw the white establishment indifferent at beast and hostile. They lived in an atmosphere of frustration, hostility, and despair. Their anger led to protests and confrontations that seemed to reinforce a city government goal of isolating black residents from a white population who saw them as a threat to their safety and security.
The play is filled with stirring and dramatic scenes that display the irreconcilable conflict between the races. After three weeks of living in a Cabrini Green apartment, Byrne ended her quest for racial healing with no changes in attitude on either side. Her sincerity appears genuine, though there are people on both sides of the racial battleground who treated her move to the ghetto as a self promoting publicity stunt.
Christine Mary Dunford does what she can with the role of the mayor. Dunford bears a striking physical resemblance to Byrne, who died in 2014. Her Byrne is a tough, hard drinking, often foul-mouth lady. She is baffled that she receives no cooperation in her crusade from the black characters who know from bitter experience that the white establishment in the main stands for police brutality and segregation. The play ends with Byrne sitting alone, too naïve to the end to understand that her campaign never had a chance.
The play works best in its realistic moments, especially the verbal explosions of resentment launched from both sides. There are a couple of brief choreographed dream sequences involving Byrne and her first and second husbands that seem pretentious and out of place. An extended mixed media scene unsuccessfully attempts to paint Chicago in the elegiac style of a faux Carl Sandberg poem.
What makes the production worth seeing are those scenes of ferocious passion that come from Robert Cornelius, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Renee Lockett, Taron Patton, and Willie “Mudlife Doc” Round, who represent the black representatives of the housing project. Their collective outrage, sometimes relieved with rueful humor, drenches the play in searing emotion, giving the Cabrini Green grievances a stirring authenticity. The white side of the story is performed, all in multiple roles, by Thomas J. Cox, Frank Nall, Josh Odor,and Tracy Walsh. Cox gives a particularly revealing personification of Chicago political resistance to the Cabrini Green agonies as crafty and weasily alderman Fred Roti.
The production, under Brooks’s direction, is enhanced by a multi media display of film and sound as designed byYu Shibagaki (scenic design), Mieka Van der Ploeg (costumes), Christine A. Binder (lighting), Christopher M. LaPorte (sound), Rasean Davonte Johnson (projections), and Michael Huey (original music).
“Her Honor Jane Byrne” scores on its documentary style moments that explore the Cabrini Green struggles against the white reluctance to supplying remedies, a resistance fueled by white ethnic and religious prejudices as well as political expediency. I left the Lookingglass feeling that I just saw a play as relevant to Chicago in 2020 as it was in 1981. Jane Byrne meant well, but she had no chance. Sad. Very sad.
“Her Honor Jane Byrne” gets a.
“Her Honor Jane Byrne” runs through April 12 at the Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, 82 North Michigan Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $85. Call (312) 337-0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.org.