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Where Did We Sit on the Bus?

Brian Quijada asks a fascinating question in his autobiographical solo show.

Brian Quijada stars in his new solo play, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, directed by Chay Yew, at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
(© Gerry Goodstein)

Brian Quijada will astound you with his sound design for Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, his new solo play at Ensemble Studio Theatre. He creates everything live, beatboxing into a microphone and looping the audio so he can accompany himself in strange and unexpected musical concoctions (he is the exclusive sound designer on the production). It is the kind of innovative and masterfully executed approach to sound that almost makes you forget that you're seeing yet another one-man show in which an actor tells a meandering story about what it is like growing up wanting to be an actor.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Quijada talks about his childhood in suburban Chicago. The son of Salvadoran immigrants, he grew up with an eclectic mix of influences: Latin DJs at church parties, his mostly Jewish circle of friends, and Michael Jackson music videos. The latter really helped him discover his love of performing, a source of frustration for his father, who didn't move to the States to raise a starving artist.

Brian Quijada mixes sound live in Where Did We Sit on the Bus?
(© Gerry Goodstein)

The title of the play comes from a question Quijada asked his third grade teacher when they were learning about Rosa Parks: If white people sat in the front of the bus and black people were made to sit in the back, where did Latinos sit? "Oh. They weren't around," she dismissively (and incorrectly) answers. It's a great question that really leaves you wanting to know the answer in greater detail.

Unfortunately, Quijada doesn't dwell very long on the position of Latin Americans within our often binary racial history. While issues of race and identity run throughout the play, they are only a small part of a muddled whole. Quijada clearly has an expansive range of interests (dance, music, ethnicity, family), but none of them quite feel like the crux of the show.

Luckily, Quijada compensates for this lack of focus with his unique intensity as a performer. Whether he's moonwalking across the stage or reenacting his own birth, Quijada inhabits his play with ferocity and dedication. His exquisite diction is perfectly matched to his poetic writing style, which is always open to a rhyme but not reliant on them. Describing his elementary school history class, he says:

Talking about the slave trade is some serious shit for the 3rd grade.
Mrs. Winter starts talking about the harsh past
Yet consciously avoiding eye contact with Greg, the only black kid in class.

It's a playful mixture of internal rhyme and awkward truth, observed through a child's eyes and all within a loose verse structure. Quijada really makes it work with his unflinchingly committed delivery.

Brian Quijada performs a Michael Jackson dance move in Where Did We Sit on the Bus?
(© Gerry Goodstein)

Director Chay Yew accentuates that experience through smart, simple, and effective design. Angelica Borrero-Fortier's minimal set features a chair and a DJ booth, leaving plenty of room for Quijada to play. Liviu Pasare's unconventional, beautiful, and flawlessly executed floor projections create the stage picture. At one point, boxes of light appear under Quijada's feet as he dances across the floor. It's technically very impressive, especially in such an intimate space.

While the title may be a bit misleading, there is still much to enjoy in this artfully crafted memoir from an undeniably gifted storyteller like Brian Quijada. On top of being a very talented actor, he may just be this season's most sought-after sound designer after people see what he's doing over at Ensemble Studio Theatre.