Review: Meet Juan(ito) Doe

Meet Juan(ito) Doe will not be playing at any of Chicago’s Northside theaters, but that is the whole point. 

The play is a collection of stories expressed in creative choreography and deep, personal monologues that brilliantly convey what it’s like being brought up Mexican-American on the Southside of Chicago. The specificity of these stories and location of the performances are intentional, as it was written and directed by Ricardo Gamboa and co-directed by Ana Velazquez who both grew up on the Southside.

“Our play is homegrown,” says co-director Ricardo Gamboa. “We’re not fancy artists that are paid by a museum or a theater company that has no sustained connection to the communities we’re engaging. We’re an ensemble of brown and down Chicagoans that made a play about our communities for our communities.”

This ensemble-based theater piece is presented by Free Street Theater and is performed in a humble storefront that was once an electronic repair shop of Jose Guerrera, a Mexican immigrant who settled in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Guerrera’s daughters donated the storefront for the production, charging rent of only $1 per month. In an effort to make the play accessible, the Meet Juan(ito) Doe tickets are free or pay-what-you-can, which is possible due to local support like this as well as hours of volunteer work and $50,000 in funding from the Joyce Foundation.

The stories re-created in Meet Juan(ito) Doe were gathered from bar crawls in various Mexican-American neighborhoods in Chicago. The play is an attempt to rescue and celebrate the stories of marginalized Mexican-Americans and working-class immigrants living in the city, and it is also a refusal of traditional theatre.

“Chicago is a city where Mexicans are everywhere – we’ve been here, and contributed so much to this city, but you really wouldn’t know it by looking at mainstream media or textbooks. Or stages,” said director and playwright, Ricardo Gamboa.

Through an endearing young girl getting high after her shift at Mariano’s, we learn how Mexican traditions and customs are lost through assimilation. We meet a queer teenager who sneaks into his mother’s heels, and unabashedly stands against his criticizing Catholic grandmother and father. In some of the other monologues, we learn about a graffiti artist whose hard-working, but well-meaning father does not understand his son’s art as a form of resistance, and pleads with him to “get a job.”

We listen to the bar owner of a gentrified neighborhood who is afraid of being wiped off by “gringos” who move to the area because rent is “cheap.” We learn that he is more than just a bar owner; he is a healer for the regulars, and uses mezcal as “vaporub paras sus ailments.” His bar is more than just a bar, it is a bar for “the people forgotten by their own community.”

Throughout the performance, nostalgia thickens the air of the storefront-turned-theater space, not only through visuals and stories, but also sound. The play includes original sound design from Jacquelyn Carmen Guerrerro (aka DJ CqqchiFruit) as well as familiar recordings from Don Francisco’s Sabado Gigante, and classic songs such as, Chayenne’s 1990s-era “Tiempo de Vals,” Juan Gabriel’s “Querida,”and ’80s Freestyle hits like “Fantasy Girl” and “Spring Love,” that fill the room.

The stories that are recreated in this play all say something crucial about working-class Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants: we are here – we and our stories are belonging to the past as much as to the future.

Meet Juan(ito) Doe

DIRECTORS: Ricardo Gamboa & Ana Velazquez

CAST:  Sebastian Olayo, Keren Diaz de Leon, Alejandro Reyes, Nicolas Dell Valle Jr, Anthony Soto & Lily Be

LOCATION: Free Street Theater at The Storyfront, 4346 S. Ashland Ave. 

TICKETS: Free or Pay-What-You-Can. Reserve tickets online or show up for first-come tickets.

Due to high demand, performances have been extended through December 15.

For event information and to reserve tickets, visit the play’s Facebook Page or the Free Street Theater website.