American history classes are notorious for excluding entire groups of people without even noticing the problem. For playwright and actor Brian Quijada, this proved to be a gift in disguise. While learning about the civil rights movement in elementary school, Quijada asked the teacher where Latinos—his people—would have sat on a segregated bus. She answered, “They weren’t around.” Even as a kid, Quijada was dissatisfied by the answer. It led to a lifetime of questions, culminating in Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, a one-man show he wrote and stars in, which runs at City Theatre Jan.19-Feb. 24.
“That was the very first time that I had an identity crisis, I guess, as a Latino boy,” says Quijada. “It led me to go home and ask a bunch more questions about where we came from, who we were, who I was.”
Described as a “hip-hop autobiography,” the show, directed by Chay Yew, explores family, art, and identity through music. Quijada plays the ukulele, harmonica, a hybrid keyboard/drum machine, and an iPad used for live looping. He describes the show as part storytelling, part stand-up, and part personal reflection. For Quijada, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador before he was born, becoming an artist was almost unheard of, and the play grapples with what it means for him even to be performing it.
“I feel very lucky that I'm going on stage every night and talking about my family coming to the United States, being undocumented immigrants, to make me, to have me have this life on stage telling their story.”
“I'm the first artist that my parents have ever met, me and my brother,” says Quijada, whose brother is also an actor. “It's kind of an explanation of what it means to be a storyteller trying to make a professional living doing what no one in our family history has ever done before.”
Quijada wrote parts of the play throughout his life—poems, letters, journal entries—without even realizing it. “In the play, I go through my entire life, I shout out the age that I am,” says Quijada. “It's really cool that there are parts of this play that are actually my voice at 16.”
Although the story Quijada tells in Where Did We Sit is not overtly political, any piece of art right now that deals with immigration is set against the backdrop of a national conflict over the topic, which has resulted in detention centers, protests, and the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history. Quijada is aware of this in every aspect of making and performing his play.
“I went through security to get here from New York and got my luggage secured by a TSA [agent] that isn't receiving a paycheck because of a debate regarding a border wall,” he says. “I feel very lucky that I'm going on stage every night and talking about my family coming to the United States, being undocumented immigrants, to make me, to have me have this life on stage telling their story.”