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Theatre in Review: Where Did We Sit On the Bus? (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Brian Quijada. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

At first, Brian Quijada comes across in his solo show as the odd love child of Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Leguizamo -- the former for the lengthy passages of freestyle rap that carry the narrative and the latter for Quijada's ability to play the most intimate details of his youth for slapstick comedy. For example, an early passage features Quijada imitating the sounds of his parents making love -- and, incidentally, conceiving him -- leading to him, impersonating himself as a fetus, announcing, "I'm chillin' in the womb." There's something uncannily familiar about all of this, even the admittedly ingenious sequence that follows in which he mimes the terror of being shaken out of that well-appointed soft spot in his mother's belly and forced out through the birth canal. Both of the above influences converge as he announces, "I was born blinded/Not blind in sight but blind-minded/I lost what I knew to be the answer and I couldn't find it/No idea of culture, late '80s trending topics/The folks about to raise me or the depth of their pockets." Then he pauses and asks, nervously, "Can these people afford me? What if I grow up with expensive taste?"

But what starts out to be a breezily amusing, if derivative, evening quickly acquires a distinctive voice of its own, as Quijada -- an appealing presence with crack comic timing -- skillfully mines his early years for laughs, simultaneously embodying and spoofing his overdramatic younger self. In grade school, he is nonplussed to learn that the English translation of his last name means "jaw." When his father jokingly tells him that their ancestor was "a very good eater," the boy spins this information into a family-origin narrative that nearly gets him thrown out of school for threatening another student with tales of his cannibal forebears. Envying his father's skill as a social dancer, he announces, with suaveness beyond his years, "I want to sweep the floor so hard that the custodian can take the next day off." Getting his cultural references mixed up following an audition for the school play, he giddily informs his mother, "I'm playing Michael Jackson in The Wizard of Oz!"

Quijada also offers some wicked sketches of the adults in his life, especially the tough-as-nails third-grade teacher who, determined not to sugarcoat history to her audience of eight-year-olds, announces, in her best military drone, "It's Black History Month. We're gonna go ahead and discuss slavery, the transportation of Africans on sailboats, the bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation, and all the years and years of discrimination yet to follow." The stunned boy mutters, "Holy moly, back from recess and what a pill to swallow."

This same teacher unwittingly triggers a conflict in Quijada when she offers a vivid account of Rosa Parks' civil disobedience. When Brian, transfixed by her vision of whites seated in front and blacks relegated to the back of the city bus, asks, "Like Latinos? Where did we sit on the bus?" the teacher, for once at a loss for words, finally answers, "Oh, they weren't around." In a single stroke, he feels erased from history.

The rest of Where Did We Sit On the Bus? tracks Quijada's coming of age in a slipstream of warring cultural influences -- a young straight kid who worships Broadway musicals and Michael Jackson ("I keep thinking that there I sit, a brown boy who wants to be a black boy who wants to be a white boy"); a Latino kid growing up in largely white Chicago suburbs, fascinated by his circle of Jewish friends; and the child of illegal immigrants whose show business dreams appall parents who want him to opt for a financially secure career as a doctor or lawyer. As a first-generation American, he is especially sensitive to his precarious place in society. ("When my brown family eats in a restaurant on the white side of town, the waitress ignores us because brown people don't tip.") And he is terribly aware of his parents' struggles and sacrifices. His mother, he says, "lay under a board covered with flowers in the back of a pickup to get through Immigration," adding, sardonically, "Why isn't there an Oregon Trail game that tells that story?" Still, as he makes his way through high school and college, their continued absence at his performances remains a source of permanent pain.

At first, Where Did We Sit On the Bus? looks like a bare-bones affair, what with Angelica Borrero-Fortier's stripped-to-the-walls set. In fact, it is surprisingly technically sophisticated. Quijada acts as his own sound designer, working from an upstage table covered with audio and networking devices. He feeds vocal lines and beat boxes into his mic, converting them, via Bluetooth technology and his smartphone, into a nearly continuous underscoring that adds to the rhythm of his words. At the same time, the white deck is a screen for Liviu Pasare's projections, many of them involving blocks and circles of color that seem to move in harmony with the audio. Diane D. Fairchild's lighting, which makes strong use of shadow effects delivered by floor units, demonstrates how attractive, compelling looks can be created using only a handful of instruments.

Under the direction of Chay Yew, human talent and modern technology combine to singular effect. The text's train of thought is triggered when Quijada gets engaged to his girlfriend (whose background is half Swiss/half Austrian) and he is forced to ponder telling his future mixed offspring about their rangy family history. Unlike many writers, who find themselves hamstrung trying to reconcile life in America with their ethnic heritages, Quijada ends up embracing his story in all its crazy contradictions -- or, as he puts it, a brown kid influenced by black history and music -- and Hall & Oates. Quijada impressed a couple of seasons back in the Off Broadway drama My Manana Comes. This new offering only confirms that he is a bright talent, both as a writer and actor, with a distinctive view of this immigrant country of ours. (Seeing the show the evening of the first Clinton-Trump debate made this delightful piece into an electrifying one.) We'll be hearing from him again. -- David Barbour

(29 September 2016)

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