Citizens fearing violence while facing economic inequality. The history-making appointment of a woman in office. Hope for change amid the cynicism of politics. These were the issues facing Chicagoans decades ago.
Way back in 1979, Jane Byrne became the first female mayor of Chicago. Equally newsworthy was her temporary move into the city’s public housing project Cabrini-Green during the height of its notoriety in 1981. For three weeks, the press and the people questioned whether her move was a P.R. stunt or if it was made in good faith to unite “The City The City that Works.”
Nearly 40 years later, Lookingglass Theatre Company Ensemble Member and Mellon Playwright in Residence J. Nicole Brooks reexamines the move in “Her Honor Jane Byrne,” which she wrote and directed.
“Our play joins history to myth. Some of it is dramatic interpretation, and some of it is real,” says Brooks. “When you grow up in a city that’s hyper segregated, run amuck with corruption, and political stunts and discord, you have to work hard to love it. I love the city of Chicago. I love the history. I’m fascinated by ethnic clans. I’m curious about patronage, councils, aldermen, and committeemen. Who gets elected and how? Who gets to lead us, and will they actually listen to us?
“Though I was very little, I can remember when it was announced that Mayor Jane Byrne was moving into Cabrini-Green. Can she stop the violence? Well, no one person can. Here we are decades later, asking the same questions. I hope our audiences walk away with a bit of the past, so they may know how to shape our future.”
The production premiered on the Lookingglass stage in March 2020. But five days later, the theater had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the Company has partnered with WBEZ to re-launch “Her Honor Jane Byrne” as a radio play.
“A play takes years of work to get it to the point of production, and this play was speaking directly to our city about our city. So we are thrilled and grateful to WBEZ for giving us a new platform to share J. Nicole Brooks’s timely and brilliant play in its new audio form,” explains Artistic Director Heidi Stillman.
“Over the past months since the show closed, it’s subject matter has only become more relevant. Her Honor Jane Byrne is ambitious, timely, and an important piece of work about the way geography, race and inequality line up in Chicago—and how choices made in the past are still playing out in our city today.”
As Jane Byrne, Christine Mary Dunford heads up the cast which includes fellow ensemble members Thomas J. Cox and Tracy Walsh. The creative team features composer Michael Huey, sound designer Christopher M. LaPorte, and associate director Wendy Mateo.
“Her Honor Jane Byrne” will air on Chicago’s NPR news station WBEZ 91.5 FM and wbez.org on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 26 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Saturday, November 28 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Top image: photo of Jane Byrne by Frank Hanes, MBR
Middle image: photo of J. Nicole Brooks courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre Company