It was a third-grade history lesson on civil rights and Rosa Parks that spawned Brian Quijada’s one man show, “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” Blacks were in the back, whites up front. What about Mexican-Americans like him?
“You weren’t around,” his teacher answered. With that hook Quijada draws us in to his compelling personal story – largely based on his performing skills and big personality.
I harbor some diffidence about one-man shows, which can easily veer into narcissism. Quijada’s provocative title piqued my interest, and a mix-up in schedules had me with a couple hours open just as the lights came up for the matinee.
Apparently, others are on to what a great performer Quijada is: the theater was full for this return engagement of a show he wrote, choreographed, and for which he masters loops and overdubs into a nice accompaniment, built around his creditable singing and some well-chosen chords on his electric ukulele. It’s part of the Up Close and Personal series at www.Victorygardens.org
This story of a 28-year-old Chicagoland native, now making his way onto stages around the country, and into New York theater scene, has a lot of charm. After about 20 minutes it is clear Quijada is a natural born performer, and he has built an enticing showcase of his performance capabilities – almost like a general audition that shows his dancing and singing skills, as he recounts his resume on the stage starting from grammar school, through turns at everything from Shakespeare to Broadway musicals.
But Quijada’s story takes a more serious turn as he recounts the discrimination he encountered. And when we reach the part about his marriage to a German woman from Europe, and their prospect of having children, he understands he must bring answers to his future offspring.
That rapidly becomes a compelling tale of self-discovery, punctuated with hip hop and dance numbers that are as entertaining as the stories he recounts. The longest journey is through his father’s rejection of his theatrical career. He wanted to see him take up a safer, more practical trade to earn a living.
Quijada maintains his focus as he also defines himself in the world – still trying to answer that third-grade puzzle. His parents don’t have a story in the national narrative – no Mayflower, no slave ships, no Ellis Island. They weren’t there. They had to sneak in, unseen – a lightning rod now but written several years before the current tempest about immigration.
Quijada brings a tale of magical realism to his family history, and this one-man show rises to general significance for all of us, culminating in his journey to New York, where Quijada provides us a powerful insight on seeing the State of Liberty, sharing those famous words of the poem:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
This extra two lines we hear less often. They made all the differences that afternoon. And like everyone around me I laughed, I cried, and I rose to applaud. Don’t miss this Teatro Vista production at the Victory Gardens Theatre through June 4. Really recommended.