Walking through a bookstore, there are sections we all dodge. For me, it’s romance novels. Covers of strapping hunks with bedroom eyes scream redundancy. So it is with the theatre; different genres engender varying enthusiasm levels. One-man shows are slightly above the romance novel, but generally low on my list. It’s hard for one human to entertain a crowd for a play’s duration because that one person has to be spectacular. However, they’re persistently popular as they appeal to thinly budgeted theatres due to the low investment of a single person.
Brian Quijada’s one-man show, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, currently playing at the City Theatre is anything but drudgery. Before the show, upbeat music pervades the air, creating a buoyantly cheerful atmosphere. Looking around, heads bob and feet swing subtly to the beat of Santana’s “Oyo Como Va,” and you’re reminded theatre is a collective experience. At one point in the show, Quijada says, “I believe we are all born with rhythm,” and that collective pre-show sway foreshadows and validates his statement.
The opening tunes also anticipate the ways in which music and sound are central to the show, becoming a character, a sort of chorus. Quijada records and loops varying sounds and statements throughout the show that echo and enhance his larger narrative. Quijada did not only write his autobiographical show, but he is also the sound designer and composer. He’s sure-footed in all roles, easily bouncing between playing his ukulele and harmonica while leveraging the modern conveniences of portable technology as he adjusts sound with his iPhone.
In one scene, Quijada overlays a rhythmic repetitious spelling of his surname (q-u-i-j-a-d-a) over a family creation story he mythologizes as a child. As he’s trying to understand his El Salvadorian roots and ancestors, the spelling of Quijada provides a thread that reaches back, connecting him with an unknown past he fills in with the easy imaginative powers of a child. His constructed narrative makes him a descendent of a king and imbibes him with a strength he finds missing in his everyday life as the child of Hispanic immigrants, straddling two cultures as an American-born child.
Quijada isn’t the only one who succeeds at multiple roles. The show’s director, Chay Yew, is similarly chameleon-like in his range of theatrical talents. Yew is a well-known Asian-American playwright who also explores the immigrant experience in his work, and he is currently the artistic director at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre. Quijada’s work was first developed in 2014 at Victory Gardens under Yew, so the pair have a long working relationship.
For this production, Yew serves as both director and set designer. The set design is simple and stark, a sharp contrast to the warmth of the show’s music and Quijada’s magnetic effervescence. The set is comprised of a tall stainless-steel table for Quijada’s instruments and equipment and a white wooden chair. As director, Yew surprises us with the clever utilization of his deceivingly simple set. At the play’s opening, Quijada backs up his story to the night he was conceived, mimicking his parents’ voices and a few pelvic thrusts set to sensuous Latin music send him on his way. Quijada presses his hands together and pushes them forward, playfully emulating the sperm’s journey, and he emerges between the table’s legs on the voyage to the egg. A few minutes later, the table’s legs become the birth canal as “boom,” he’s pushed from the womb. Quijada’s hip hop style conveys a comedic vibrancy, but Yew never lets him nestle into a one-note performance.
Yew’s set is thoughtfully augmented by the work of projection designer, Liviu Pasare. When Brian starts kindergarten, he’s initially placed in an ESL class. When that class is too full, the principal plucks him for the regular kindergarten, assuming he must speak English with the name Brian. Brian emulates his mother’s heavily accented English, affirming to the principal he’s learned English from his older brothers (Brian is the youngest of 4 boys.). As the scene unfolds, Pasare projects white dots onto the brown floor that rapidly expand and merge. At the scene’s conclusion, there are only a few erratic hints of brown beneath the white, a fitting visual metaphor for Quijada as a brown outlier uncomfortably entering his primarily white classroom.
The play concludes with spoken word verse that brings to mind both the lyrics of Hamilton and a modern-day version of Walt Whitman’s 19th century poem, “Leaves of Grass,” in which Whitman celebrated the connectedness of his fellow Americans with reverence. Quijada also encourages us to see and act more inclusively. His whispered refrain of “let them in” overlays his telling of a high school trip to Ellis Island and his disappointment at finding no Quijadas in the immigration database there. He misses out on his classmates’ sense of shared discovery and feels acutely excluded within an immigrant experience that privileges white European narratives. Quijada helps us to broadly consider what we miss when we don’t “let them in,” a salient reminder in the current political climate, because “them” is really just another version of us.
Brian Quijada’s Where Did We Sit on the Bus? plays through February 24th at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre. Learn more about Quijada, and buy tickets to his must-see solo show online.
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th century American drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews