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THEATER REVIEW Her Honor Jane Byrne
by Karen Topham
2020-03-17

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Playwright: J. Nicole Brooks

At: Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan. Tickets: LookingglassTheatre.org Price: Tickets no longer available. Runs through: Canceled due to coronavirus

[NOTE: Performances have been suspended due to COVID-19, but Windy City Times feels this review should run to acknowledge the work of the artists involved.]

Elected in 1979, Mayor Jane Byrne promised that, though she was a protege of ( the original ) Mayor Daley, she would work to clean up the parts of the City That Works that didn't work quite so well. Faced with an outbreak of gang violence, she made the well-meaning but naive decision to move into the Cabrini-Green public housing complex, hoping that the city services that would follow her there could ultimately curb the violence and change lives for the better. Of course, the issues were far too complicated and ran too deep for any one person to change them.

J. Nicole Brooks' Her Honor Jane Byrne examines this fascinating moment in Chicago's history from multiple perspectives: yes, we see it through the eyes of Mayor Byrne ( Christine Mary Dunford in a compelling performance ), but we also see it from the point of view of the people of Cabrini-Green, and it is their reflections that make this play powerful. Byrne's publicity stunt may well have been meant sincerely—Brooks and Dunford seem to believe so—but this Hyde Park-raised White woman really had no clue what daily life was about for the people of the inner city.

From the beginning, we can see that the rank and file police were not on her side. ( At one point we are told that fully one-quarter of them were calling in sick. ) Also not on her side was the weaselly alderman Fred Roti, played by Thomas J. Cox, who did not like her usurping control over his district. But perhaps her biggest roadblocks were the people she was trying to help themselves.

The Cabrini-Green residents are mostly represented by four figures here: the grandmotherly Mabel Foley ( a highly sympathetic Renee Lockett ); the young Tiger ( Nicole Michelle Haskins, showing a lot of range ), who is at first vitriolic about the whole thing but then allows herself to be persuaded of Byrne's good intentions; the street entrepreneur Black Che ( Robert Cornelius, having a great time, especially when toying with a reporter played by Tracy Walsh ); and the perpetually angry Kid ( Willie "Mudlife Roc" Round ). Then there is the adamantly militant Marion Stamps, a community activist fighting for the rights of these residents who became one of Byrne's most vocal opponents in this whole affair.

Brooks, who also directs the play, describes it as a play that "joins history to myth." It is constructed as a collage-like series of scenes, some realistic and some ( like those showing the relationship Byrne had with her dead husband ) not so much. These more surreal scenes really don't work as well as the others, weighing the play down for little real payback. Brooks would have been well-advised to remain in the realistic present. Still, what she shows us is impressive. On a Yu Shibagaki set featuring what seem like dozens of TV screens ( with projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson ) and a single, highly flexible, revolving wall, she conjures several locations and an entire culture that most, if indeed not all, of her Michigan Avenue audience have never directly experienced, reminding us that we are all just people trying our best to live our lives. It's too bad that this play did not have a chance to be seen; perhaps Lookingglass will consider bringing it back in a year or two.


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