Back in the Day captures the heyday of the underage house scene in Chicago | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Back in the Day captures the heyday of the underage house scene in Chicago

Rival dance crews find common ground in UrbanTheater's staging.

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When house music is recounted in books, television shows, and other media, three things are always mentioned: Chicago, the Warehouse club, and Frankie Knuckles. UrbanTheater Company's Back in the Day, written by artistic director Miranda González and based on José "Gringo" Echevarría's memoir The Real Dance Fever: Book One, fills in the blanks of mainstream retellings with an all-encompassing "dancesical" of teens in the underage club scene that laid the foundation for house parties today.

A black-and-white checkered floor and a wall of mirrors with words and slogans like "Trans Lives Matter," "gringo," "south side" and "Humboldt Park" set the scene of this 1980s play, directed by Raquel Torre and choreographed by Breon Arzell. Rival crews the All Stars, Culitos, and Imported Taste dance, cry, laugh, and age in a room of shimmery walls as they battle it out for the best dance crew—and years later lay their dancing days to rest. House music served as communal glue for the mostly queer Latinx and Black teens as they navigated racially segregated Chicago in a time where teen clubs like now-closed Janels were the only place they could openly express their queerness.

No matter how hard two of the crews' leaders, Gringo (Mateo Hernández) and Troy (Jermaine Robinson Jr.), fight on the dance floor (whether that "floor" is in the club or the streets), their friendship prevails. The audience experiences the ups and downs of their relationship firsthand, as Harrison Ornelas's immersive set allows the attendees to walk, dance, or sit if they choose, putting them as close to being in the actual Janels as they can get.

From Shannon's "Let the Music Play" opening number to one final, somber performance where the teens grieve the loss of a beloved street dancer and friend, Back in the Day relays a compelling part of house music history that shouldn't continue being left out of mainstream narratives.  v

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