Yo, Lin-Manuel Miranda, better watch your back.
That’s because of Brian Quijada, a supremely talented and engaging 27-year-old writer-actor-dancer-musician-sound master. He’s now on stage at Chicago’s Storefront Theater downtown in the world premiere of “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” It’s a bravura one-man show that should have ticket-buyers lining up at the box office.
Quijada, who grew up in several Chicago suburbs, now lives on your turf (in New York’s Washington Heights) but has returned to perform his dazzling, heart-piercing 90-minute work about dance, music, theater, ethnic roots, identity, immigration, assimilation, parent-child relationships, the pursuit of dreams and much more. Not since you, Mr. Miranda, and John Leguizamo burst onto the scene has there been such an explosion of energy, comic verve, playful sexiness, raw emotion and irresistible storytelling emanating from one man.
‘WHERE DID WE SIT ON THE BUS?’
When: Through April 10
Where: Teatro Vista at
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph
Run time: 90 minutes,
Presented by Teatro Vista in association with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and Victory Gardens Theater, “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” might best be described as a contemporary Latino-American version of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Here is autobiography at its most artful (and political), with the language of rap, hip-hop, spoken word and live looping brilliantly intertwined with everything from Shakespeare, “The Wizard of Oz” and Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” (the one emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty) to Michael Jackson’s moon walks and Latin dance moves. (In one hilarious sequence that should be posted on YouTube, where it unquestionably would go viral, Quijada, a terrific dancer, demonstrates the difference between those who use their arms, their hips and their feet.)
There is a serious intention here (the piece should be required viewing for Congress, among many others), and its title is the tipoff. But first a bit of background.
Quijada, whose conception and birth scenes rival those in Noah Haidle’s play “Smokefall,” is a child of immigrant parents from El Salvador. One of four sons — only he and another brother were born in the United States — his first home was a trailer in Glenview. He was still young when the family moved to a “real house” in Highwood, where they were seen as outsiders to some among that town’s large Italian community.
It’s there, in third grade, that Quijada has his first epiphany about identity when, during Black History Month, his teacher delivers a slavery-to-Civil Rights Movement lesson that includes the story of Rosa Parks. Suddenly, realizing he is neither black nor white but brown, he wonders where he might have had to sit on the bus. And he begins to probe his parents’ histories, concocting fabulous tales based on his family name, which translates as “jaw,” but gradually getting closer to the truth of the dangers and sacrifices involved in their reaching America.
It is also around this time that Quijada gets his first glimpse of Michael Jackson on MTV and is dazzled by his dancing and persona. Awe and elation combine with confusion.
By 11, Quijada is going to a school in Highland Park, where he’s exposed to a whole different culture — upscale, education-driven Jews. His Latino friends remind him not to forget where he comes from, but Quijada thrives at the school and is drawn to theater. He is a natural, even if his father’s disapproval of such an insecure profession will bring them both years of pain.
This is only the beginning of the story Quijada tells — a story set in motion as he tells us he has proposed to a woman of Swiss-Austrian background and is already thinking about how he will raise his “mixed-heritage” kids without screwing them up.
Under the expertly paced direction of Chay Yew (who clearly has taken his cues from the wildly varied beats of the performer’s high-flying metabolism), so much is effortlessly packed into this warp-speed show that it cannot be fully recounted. That’s all for the good. The true joy, and heartache, come from experiencing it firsthand.