There’s a moment in writer/director J. Nicole Brooks’ richly detailed ”Her Honor Jane Byrne” when elderly Cabrini-Green resident Mabel Foley shows a reporter a series of puzzles. Paris, London, downtown Chicago — the genial grandmother explains that they’re all places she’s never been.
The reporter is puzzled by Chicago’s inclusion. Doesn’t Mabel live in Chicago? Cabrini-Green, after all, is decidedly in Chicago. In the play’s 1981 setting, tens of thousands of people live in the near North Side housing project.
Then there’s a moment of poignant clarity: Mabel has never been downtown. As Brooks makes clear, the isolation of Cabrini-Green residents wasn’t entirely self-imposed. When Mayor Jane Byrne (Christine Mary Dunford) demands to know how police are combating crime in Cabrini-Green, the brass has a ready answer: They keep it “contained.” They don’t fight it. They don’t try to prevent it. What happens in Cabrini-Green stays in Cabrini-Green.
Now in its world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre, Brooks’ “Her Honor Jane Byrne” is packed with history, woven into a story that presents Cabrini-Green as a community rather than a monolith of crime. Byrne thought she had a solution that would diminish crime in Cabrini-Green and bolster her political power. She moved into a unit at 1160 N. Sedgwick, bringing a wealth of city services with her and pledging to stay “as long as it takes” to make significant change.
She was gone in 20 days, her stay culminating in an ill-advised Easter celebration. While the mayor posed with children and Easter baskets, Cabrini-Green protesters — including Cabrini-Green resident and lifelong activist Marion Stamps — denounced Byrne’s move as a politically-motivated publicity stunt. The police wrestled protesters into paddy wagons as Byrne smiled for the cameras.
Brooks shows Cabrini-Green’s problems within a larger context: The powerful mobsters and politicians who get a cut of Cabrini-Green drug sales have no intention of letting Byrne interfere with their racketeering. As Brooks connects the dots between the drug sales and the turf wars and the politicians, it becomes ever clearer that Cabrini-Green’s woes have roots outside the housing project.
There is something deeply satisfying about watching Byrne tell Machine powerbrokers — egomaniacal 1st ward Ald. Fred Roti (Thomas Cox) and an unspecified Spilotro brother (Frank Nall) among them — exactly where they can go. It’s just as satisfying watching Stamps (TaRon Patton) do the same to Byrne.
Dunford is uncanny in her resemblance to Byrne. She also captures Byrne’s blind spots, starting with her belief that she can swoop in and “fix” a neighborhood she knows only by its statistics. Dunford makes Byrne a calculating opportunist and a woman determined to do something good for Cabrini-Green. The contradiction is never reconciled.
Patton turns in a mighty performance as Stamps, a warrior who knows Chicago history — including Byrne’s ascension under the mentorship of Richard J. Daley. The irony of a Daley acolyte purporting to help the very people her mentor disregarded, isolated and brutalized isn’t lost on Stamps, and she makes sure it isn’t lost on Byrne.
The supporting players are an embarrassment of riches. Renee Lockett’s Mabel is a tough-love grandmother, the kind of woman keeps everybody’s kids in line. As bookseller Black Che, Robert Cornelius is regal elder statesman whose effortlessly cool demeanor doesn’t mask the respect he demands. Nicole Michelle Haskins is heroic as a young woman who finds hope in Shelley Winter’s iconic swim in “The Poseidon Adventure.” (“She didn’t wait around to be saved. She handled things.”). As a police commander who believes the cops’ responsibility to patrol Cabrini-Green ended when snipers there killed two officers in 1970, the versatile Nall (in a second role) is chilling.
“Her Honor” falters when it drifts into Byrne’s romantic life. A seduction dance between Byrne, her first husband William P. Byrne (Josh Odor) and her second husband Jay McMullen (Nall in a third role) is weirdly comic. William Byrne’s goggled-flight sequences, meanwhile, look like a send-up of “The Little Prince.” Still, that’s hiccup not a deal breaker.
The production values are outstanding. Set designer Yu Shibagaki surrounds the stage with seemingly concrete girders and television screens. Projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson uses snippets from “Charlie’s Angels,” “Ordinary People” and wonderfully curated local news footage to enhance the sense of time and place. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes are period-perfect, from Byrne’s lightly-padded shoulders to Black Che’s plaid stretch pants to Marion’s gorgeous dashikis.
Cabrini-Green is now the site of luxury condos but its place in the public fascination remains — you need look no further than the enduring legacy of the “Candyman” franchise to see that. Brooks does more than capture a slice of its history in “Her Honor Jane Byrne.” She shows Cabrini-Green’s place in the vast, interlocking puzzle of Chicago. She also offers an homage to the people who lived there.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.