It’s February 1983, in a Chicago tavern that could be on the North Side, the Southwest Side or the Northwest Side. It doesn’t matter where, because all over town, the only topic of barroom conversation is the upcoming Democratic primary, between Harold Washington, Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley.
That election, and how it affected relations between black, white -- and even gay -- Chicagoans, is the subject of the play Busted City, which plays every Friday and Saturday night through Dec. 16 at Fuller’s Pub, 3203 W. Irving Park Road.
Jimbo, a retired Irish cop, is voting for Daley. He’s nostalgic for days when Chicagoans identified themselves by their parishes, and thinks only a strong Irishman from Bridgeport can keep the city under control. He mocks Byrne as “Attila the Hen,” and says, “If Harold wins, this city ain’t gonna be nothin’ but chicken shacks and liquor stores, and white women aren’t going to be able to walk the streets, it’s such a jungle.”
Jimbo’s buddy, Al, is still on the force. He’s voting for Byrne, because Daley will split the white vote. If Harold gets in, “I’ll be transferred to Englewood -- it’ll be payback for whitey.”
And then there’s Ace, the black mailman, who thinks a Washington victory will be as exciting and meaningful for his race as the night Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship. Ace delivers envelopes full of cash from his co-workers to Theo, the Greek bartender who’s taking bets on the election.
Theo’s brother, Johnny Jr., is openly gay, which might be unusual for 1983, but gives the play a character who represents Chicago’s future, rather than the tribal battles being played out between, as Arch puts it, “a black, a white and a blond.”
Johnny talks about how Chicago is “on the brink of becoming an international city of the arts,” and likes Byrne because “she gave my community hope.”
“We all have rights,” Jimbo tells him. “This is America.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Johnny says. “This is Chicago.”
Playwright Paul Carr was a bartender in a downtown tavern during the 1983 election, and some of the dialogue come directly from his patrons’ mouths. Fuller’s, a Chicago bar right down to the picture of Ditka giving the finger, is an imaginative setting for the play. Some of these same arguments probably took place at the bar the actors sit behind -- in the Chicago accents that the local cast doesn’t have to fake. (The play is so intensely Chicago that the program even includes a glossary of terms like bug juice, weenie waggers and goo-goos.)
The audience was mostly composed of Chicagoans of a certain age -- people old enough to have voted in that historic election. Most seemed to be rooting for Washington still. If you want to relive the moment when a victorious Washington strode the podium and declared “You want Harold? Well, here’s Harold!” then Busted City is your play.