‘Her Honor’ Tells Story of When Mayor Byrne Moved into Cabrini Green

It’s a case of political theater turning into actual theater. On stage at Lookingglass Theatre, a new play looks at a Chicago moment from March 1981. That’s when Jane Byrne, the city’s first woman mayor, moved into the Cabrini-Green housing project. To some, it was a publicity stunt. To others, her intentions were sincere. Either way, it was theatrical.


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Paris Schutz: Easter Sunday, 39 years ago. Mayor Jane Byrne, in the middle of her term, had recently moved with her husband into an apartment at Cabrini-Green. She brought a host of city services – and a disruptive security detail. 

At Lookingglass Theatre, “Her Honor Jane Byrne” explores the uproar caused by the Mayor’s move – and offers a rare opportunity to a local actor.

Ensemble Member Christine Mary Dunford performs in “Her Honor Jane Byrne.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)Ensemble Member Christine Mary Dunford performs in “Her Honor Jane Byrne.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Christine Mary Dunford, who plays Jane Byrne: I think Jane Byrne is a tremendously important historical figure to the city of Chicago. She was the first woman to hold the position, she was a leader, she had tremendous courage, she was bold, she was assertive. She was an incredible person and she actually made a huge difference in the city. 

It is a great responsibility to be playing a role like Jane Byrne who, everybody who’s lived in Chicago for any length of time, or has studied or cares about Chicago, knows. So, I feel a tremendous responsibility to Jane Byrne’s family to get it right.

Ensemble Member Christine Mary Dunford and Josh Odor. (Photo by Liz Lauren)Ensemble Member Christine Mary Dunford and Josh Odor. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Schutz: At a final rehearsal before the opening, the writer-director watches the cast and takes notes.

J. Nicole Brooks, director: As a native Chicagoan I’ve always paid attention to politics. It was very important in my household growing up, and so I have early childhood memories of these iconic mayors, Mayor Byrne being one of them. I was very little, but I do recall when she moved in to Cabrini-Green.

Schutz: Playwright Nicki Brooks includes the characters of the activist and Cabrini resident Marion Stamps and Byrne’s husband, Jay McMullen.

Heidi Stillman, Lookingglass Theatre artistic director: Nicki’s work often is based on something real, and then it’s kind of like historical fiction, in a way, like “The Crown” where she’s imagining how it all went down.

Brooks: Lookingglass is my artistic home, and this is where I get to have artistic expression and get support for ideas that I bring to the stage. We have a wide spectrum of shows. This particular production has a mix of things, some of it is magical, some of it is hardcore Chicago political theater, some of it is gritty, and there’s also moments of light and laughter.

I imagine that Byrne had an incredible amount of stress because you see when you’re the first of anything -- first woman, first black person, first gay person -- first means “only” and that’s never easy. So I think mayor Byrne dealt with a lot of stress and I also think she dealt with a lot of unfair criticism. 

Ensemble Member Tracy Walsh and Robert Cornelius. (Photo by Liz Lauren)Ensemble Member Tracy Walsh and Robert Cornelius. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Schutz: Byrne’s residency at Cabrini-Green did not last the length of her term as mayor, as she said it would.

Dunford: She was there for 25 days and then she stopped living there. The play suggests that she had good intentions, in my opinion, and that it probably was a failed project.

Brooks: I think the trouble with good intentions is that it can lead to all sorts of disaster. When you’re trying to solve a problem, and if you’re trying to attack it in a way that is localized, how can you really win when the problem is systemic? And I think that’s what Mayor Byrne was really up against.

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Her Honor Jane Byrne” runs through April 12 at Lookingglass Theatre.

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