If the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions, chances are Mayor Jane Byrne was part of the construction crew. Her history and, more importantly, the history of the residents of the Cabrini-Green Homes housing project, is on full display in the world premiere of “Her Honor Jane Byrne” at Lookingglass Theatre Company. Written and directed by J. Nicole Brooks, Lookingglass’ equally enraging and illuminating new work is a well-argued, passionately delivered piece of Chicago history that dramatizes one of the city’s most famous moments of political activism (or publicity stunts, depending on whom you ask).
An all-too-brief history lesson: In 1981, Jane Byrne—Chicago’s first female mayor—moved into the Cabrini-Green Homes housing project in an attempt to shine a light on the crime and gang violence happening there. In Jane’s eyes, her presence—alongside her wealth of political resources—would be a boon to addressing whatever issues were plaguing these homes. But to the actual residents, would bringing in a white politician and scores of white cops really improve their lives? Where Byrne sees statistics, Brooks’ work excels in showcasing the inherent humanity of the residents of Cabrini-Green, in all their complexities and eccentricities.
Byrne (brought to vivid life here by Christine Mary Dunford) attempts to find a sparring partner in community organizer Marion Stamps (a show-stopping TaRon Patton) and tries to find communion with a local teenager named Tiger (Nicole Michelle Haskins, in a terrific performance). But as the residents of Cabrini-Green tell her, no one is looking for a politician to be their friend. They need politicians to hear them and get things done. Black mothers are losing their children every day. If the mayor and the HOA can barely find time to fix the elevator in one building, why should they be expected to fix anything else?
“Her Honor Jane Byrne” has a few hiccups that confuse the stronger elements of the play. An otherwise tight and well-constructed script still has instances of clunky dialogue and scenes that are twice as long as they need to be. In working to provide a humanizing context for Jane, the production uses nontraditional staging to depict her reckoning with the death of her first husband, William Byrne. These moments are definitely within Lookingglass’ wheelhouse but nothing else in the production really fits the world of non-literal expressionist staging.
But the world of this play is one you absolutely want to spend a few hours in. The ensemble members play multiple roles across the show, including standout performances from Robert Cornelius, Renee Lockett and Thomas J. Cox. And the design elements (most notably Yu Shibagaki’s scenic design and Christine A. Binder’s lighting design) create a playing space fit for a sprawling epic.
Perhaps the boldest choice is how Brooks and her team choose to end the production. Without giving away too much about a play based on a real historical event, Byrne doesn’t get to cheerfully reflect on her experiment gone awry. Like many a well-meaning white person before and after her, there’s nothing she can really do but sit in her mess and reckon with where her best intentions have led us all. (Ben Kaye)
Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 North Michigan, (312)337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $20-$85. Through April 12.