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Jane Byrne’s Cabrini-Green Stunt Gets a Theatrical Treatment at Lookingglass

J. Nicole Brooks
Photo: Johnnyboy Photography

J. Nicole Brooks has written a play about female freedom fighters in Liberia and reimagined a Greek tragedy by setting it in Haiti. For her latest, opening February 26 at Lookingglass, the Washington Park native sticks closer to home. Her Honor Jane Byrne tackles the mayor’s 1981 publicity stunt of moving into the Cabrini-Green housing project. It’s the first in a series of plays Brooks is writing about Chicago’s mayors.

What do you remember about the Byrne episode?

I was very young. But what I do recall is my mother and other adults pausing to crowd around the TV. It was like, “Is she crazy?” I remember hearing them say things like “What does she think that’s going to do?”

Do you focus more on her or how her action affected Cabrini residents?

I wanted to be careful not to craft a white savior story, and I didn’t want to write a broad biography. It’s about a very specific point in her administration. We get inside her thoughts, and we get some understanding of politically what she was up against. I try to get perspectives from many different people — you hear from residents, politicians, organized crime people, and cops.

Are you already taking notes on Lori Lightfoot?

I’m paying very close attention. I think the play I’m writing about Rahm Emanuel will be toward the end of his last term, so it’s like Rahm on the way out, Lori on the way in. She hasn’t been in office very long, but it’s been interesting and colorful. I had an encounter with her while she was on the campaign trail and had a rather interesting conversation. I hope to write about it.

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