Playwright: Miranda Gonzalez
At: UrbanTheater Company, 2620 W. Division St. Tickets: $15-30; clata.org/destinos-backintheday. Runs through: Nov. 2
Immersive theater is tough to get right. So many factors come into play, especially the balance of audience comfort and the opportunity for performers to fully tell a story. Thankfully, Back in the Day gets immersive theater exactly right. A celebration of the dance crews that ruled the underground Chicago house music scene during 1981-96, UrbanTheater Company's world premiere ( part of the 3rd Chicago International Latino Theater Festival ) welcomes its audience with open arms.
Based on the memoirs of Jose "Gringo" Echeverria, Back in the Day follows three battling dance crews: Gringo's AllStars, Los Culitos and Imported Taste. All of the dancers are Black and Latinx teens, and most are queer. They show their stuff at a club called Janel on weekends, competing for cash prizes and bragging rights with matching outfits, sweet moves and plenty of trash talk. However, the real world is always lurking, with gunshots, homelessness and a disease that's striking young gay men nationwide.
Miranda Gonzalez's script, also inspired by her own memories of the era, develops each character with thorough care, but it's Breon Arzell's choreography that tells the real story. The young people of Back in the Day leave everything on the dance floor, putting their hearts and souls into each high kick and death drop. Even when Carlos ( Matty Robinson ) is running from gangs, Shane ( Nathaniel Andrew ) reveals a devastating secret and charismatic Troy ( Jermaine Robinson Jr. ) is unsure where he'll sleep any given night, they proudly sport bright spandex and grind to Donna Summer.
Director Raquel Torre skillfully moves the cast through UrbanTheater Company's large studio space in Humboldt Park, festooned with full-length mirrors, gold streamers and a bowl full of bright red spiked punch. The audience moves with the actors ( though there is limited seating ), perching on chairs, cubes and a white leather sofa as the teens' story unfolds. From making out at parties where unseen parents frequently turn the lights on to mourning a departed friend, the audience has a front row seat to the highs and lows of Chicago adolescent life scored with house music.
While a past-versus-present framing device isn't always effective, Back in the Day is a unique and stunning bright spot in a bustling local theater season. In just 80 minutes, an era unfolds: one of elaborate costumes crafted with filched fabric, late nights at Sidetrack and colorful memories to be made among a dark era in U.S. history. UrbanTheater Company's production is a testament to both the beauty of street dance and the power of chosen family, well worth a West Side jaunt.