City Theatre Opens 2023-24 With a Musical Work That Began in Pittsburgh
By SHARON EBERSON
Brian Quijada’s Somewhere Over the Border began with “an epic conversation” between the performance artist and his mother. The Yellow Brick Road that twice has intersected with Pittsburgh came later.
You may remember Quijada from Where Do We Sit on the Bus?, a genre mashup, presented by City Theatre, that wondered aloud about belonging.
How his mother came to the United States from El Salvador was a question he had never asked her, until one day, while awaiting an off-Broadway performance, “I remember just having the longest conversation with my mom about her immigration story.”
Reina Quijada told her “epic” tale, and when he went home that night, her songwriter son wrote a song – a lullaby.
In Somewhere Over the Border, currently at CIty Theatre, it is the song teenage Reina sings as she flees in the night, leaving her infant son with her mother. With her country in a constant state of conflict, Reina is bound for the United States, planning to find a safe harbor for her family.
It would be 10 years before she is able to reunite with her son.
“To me, that felt like the most compelling part of the story,” Quijada was saying days before his show opened at City Theatre.
The idea was already planted when he was asked by his friend, Jim Wren of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, “Would he like to come work on any play that you want with my MFA students?”
With his own natural enthusiasm – try not to feel the excitement yourself as Quijada speaks and performs – combined with the students’, he wrote the first version of Somewhere Over the Border in seven days.
The next step was a reading with performers, which was granted by Pittsburgh CLO, at its 2018 Spark Festival. The developmental fest is for small casts – no more than five people – so Quijada set to work paring six to five. But the gist was the same: A teenage mother’s journey from El Salvador to her first American stop, San Diego, and the people who help her along the way, told as a musical. Each of the helpers has a resemblance – in demeanor and deeds – to familiar characters from The Wizard of Oz.
The Spark cast included Jerreme Rodriguez, who has been with the show as it moved via Zoom, to Arizona Theater Company, and he understudied a role for the show’s world premiere in Chicago.
“Jerreme, who I love, and I met on that piece in Pittsburgh … he’s back in it as a different part. His relationship to this piece has breadth,” Quijada said.
The Spark cast included Victor M. Aponte, Richard Gutierrez, Gabriela Moscoso and Kelsey Robinson, the first time Quijada was able to experience the work with professional and Latino actors.
Pittsburgh CLO is partnering with City in the current production, along with the show’s next stop, People’s Light Theater of Malvern, PA.
Dance captain Rodriguez now plays the roles of Adán and Cruz, with castmates Isabella Campos as Reina, Gloria Vivica Benavides (Antonia/Leonia), Bobby Plasencia (Don Napoleon/Silvano), Ariana Valdes (Julia) and Arusi Santi (The Narrator). Laura Alcala Baker directs.
Quijada was effusive in his praise for the show’s band, having recently played a couple of duets himself with percussionist Hugo Cruz, at City’s annual The Bash fundraiser. Other band members include Michael Meketa and Noel Quintanam.
We’re Off to See ‘The Border’
Weaving a bit of the Wizard of Oz into the plot wasn’t an immediate thought when Quijada set out to tell his mother’s story, but there were some obvious threads that made it all come together.
“The big thing was that I immediately connected it to the [literary] Hero’s Journey,” he said. “And I think I had just come off of doing a big adaptation, a piece called Kid Prince and Pablo, which is an adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. So I was super into adaptations, specifically adaptations that could potentially be in the public domain.”
He described the idea of that Hero’s Journey in terms of such classics as The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
“Somebody leaves their home, goes on this epic journey, and then comes back years later, it changed the person … And then I started thinking about the people that my mother went with, and I started thinking about this character, these people who help migrants cross the border, who are all-knowing and everybody puts their trust into how they navigate the border, and then the border official agents being Flying Monkeys. … For me, the joy was taking something so incredibly familiar to us, like the Wizard of Oz is to an American audience, and then to beautifully tie it all back to my mother’s story.”
At the heart of the story and the music is the place it all began, in El Salvador, with Reina’s fateful decision to seek a better life for her family and leave her son behind.
“It’s the story of a mother caring for her son’s safety so much, during a looming war, that she would decide to leave him, not knowing that you wouldn’t see him for 10 years. And I think it’s the fact that she did it at such a young age – I mean, what the hell was I doing when I was 17? So I think it’s a story of a parent’s love for their child, and the part that is an immigration story. …”
“This is the worst elevator pitch ever,” Quijada said with a laugh.
With immigration at our borders so prevalent in the news, his family’s powerful story, using a framework familiar to most of us, can be a gateway to understanding and empathy.
Quijada never had to escape an impending war, but telling this story, in an entertaining way, “is a great way of looking at it,” he said. “And along the way, I find great joy in the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, whisper of, ‘Hey, that’s the scarecrow.’ Or, ‘That’s a Flying Monkey.’ Or, ‘Those are the ruby red slippers.’ It’s like along the way you can find those little Easter eggs.”
There’s No Place Like Home
For those theatergoers who saw Where Do We Sit on the Bus? at City Theatre, Somewhere Over the Border might feel a bit familiar as well, “like a continuation” of that work, and, said Quijada, “I can’t wait to share it with City audiences.”
Chicagoan Quijada has a fallen hard for all things Pittsburgh – its actors, musicians, its food and the artistic welcome mat at City Theatre … it’s a list that goes on and on, and that makes his return feel like a homecoming, he said.
Quijada has often said his immigrant parents were not thrilled with his choice of careers, hoping instead for some more secure profession.
Quijada’s two older brothers are both successful business owners, with a distance of 16 years from oldest to youngest. Brian and his American-born sibling, Marvin, are both in the arts, with American Theatre Magazine have described them as: ‘Marvin Quijada as the one with the moves and Brian Quijada as the one with the words, but the true tale of these two brothers shows more overlap than we read in show programs.”
Having once again created a theater work about his family, how do they feel about it now?
“I didn’t intend to write a piece that was drama therapy for my family, but it kind of did,” he said. “It sparked a lot of conversation [of previously] untalked about traumas. I think it led to a lot of healing. … A play like this that is so specific, I think can feel very universal.”
It took oldest brother, Fernando, some time to come around to having his story told in such a public way. But he has come around to seeing the impact of a theatrical work, as a way to create empathy and connection, Brian said.
“It’s definitely brought us a little closer,” Brian Quijada said, noting their big age gap. “I think it’s pretty amazing that he sees the power in what we’re making in art,” Brian Quijada said.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
City Theatre’s production of Somewhere Over the Border is on City’s Mainstage, 13 Bingham St., South Side, through Oct. 15. Tickets: visit https://citytheatre.culturaldistrict.org/production/87228/somewhere-over-the-border or call 412-431-CITY.