Your jaw drops realizing everything you’ve seen has been created by one person.
The one thing I certainly wasn’t expecting to do the other day at City Theatre was to find myself crying! Being a Processed City Bitch® from way back I pride myself on rejecting ginned up sentimentality and only cry at the same four shows: The Glass Menagerie, The Miracle Worker, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Crucible.
So when I walked into City Theatre for Brian Quijada’s one man piece Where Did We Sit on the Bus? thoughts of tears weren’t even on the horizon. I’ve enjoyed many fantastic solo turns on stage, but they do tend toward the theatrical and precious; two qualities which rarely hit me emotionally.
So how come at the end of Where Did We Sit on the Bus? I was sobbing into my scarf?
Where Did We Sit on the Bus? continues through February 24. City Theatre, South Side. 412/431-CITY. citytheatrecompany.org
It starts with Quijada himself. In the theater a “triple threat” is someone who can act, sing and dance. Quijada is septet threat; actor, singer, dancer, poet, musician, playwright, techno-electro mastermind. (For all I know he kick boxes, knits and composts, too.)
About halfway through the 90 intermissionless minutes your jaw drops realizing everything you’ve seen has been created by one person. (Which is in no way to slight the silken, subtle and purposeful direction of Chay Yew.) I’m nothing if not a talent-whore so Quijada had seduced me not only because of how many things he could to, but how bloody brilliant he was doing them.
It’s also impossible to overstate Quijada’s engaging determination to remain hopeful in the face of countervailing winds, his resolution to engender that hope in an audience and how that turns you into an acolyte.
But I suspect what led to my wet scarf is the story Quijada is telling. He opens recreating his recent marriage proposal to his girlfriend; he’s giddy with the possibility of their future children and imagines what he’ll tell them when they ask how they – kids with a Latino father and Austrian mother – came to be. And that leads Quijada to think about he came to be.
His parents arrived in the United States from El Salvador and settled in Chicago. Quijada’s early life was steeped in the Hispanic culture of his family and all the neighbors around them. But his middle- and high school years were spent in a more affluent and white community and learning how to navigate being the “other.”
The play’s title is from an experience with a teacher giving a lesson on Rosa Parks. If white people sat in the front of the bus and black people sat in the back, where, he asked, did brown people sit? The teacher answered: “They weren’t around.” That shocking pronouncement began Quijada’s exploration of his own identity and we watch his journey to an understanding of who he is and what being “him” means.
It may sound, perhaps, a bit of a cliché, but Quijada has an enormous ability to make it all seem new and exceptionally present tense. The script is sometimes straight prose but often grows from his history as a spoken word artist. And, too, he creates a soundscape with digital looping in real time, adding beats, riffs and an aural fabric of words and effects to provide background to or emphasis of his story.
But, finally, the moving moments are reflections of what’s happening outside. While avoiding the explicitly political for most of the piece – this really is a show about a young man finding himself and connecting with his parents – toward the end Quijada directly and brutally addresses the orange-tinted elephant in the room and the latrine of America’s politics.
With haunting, beautifully poignant words, Quijada forces us to confront the elevating humanity and heartbreaking courage of people we dismissingly call “illegal.” With scalpel precision he exposes the nauseating venality of a country so poisoned with bigotry and greed we forbid anyone to even think about sharing the crumbs falling from our bloated lips.
It was then, at the end of that section, when he looked quietly, hopefully at the audience and asked: “Can’t we just let them in?” … that’s what pushed me over the edge.
Shit! I just starting crying again.