Glenview native answers his own question in streaming 'Where Did We Sit on the Bus?'
While it may be true that actors crave a spotlight, not everyone is capable of holding it alone. Solo shows -- those deeply personal, autobiographical meditations that often command local stages -- require a special kind of candor and courage.
Writer/director Chay Yew, former Victory Gardens Theater artistic director and an expert at helming solo shows, says solo artists bear truth and bear witness to their life stories. That's no easy task.
"If you're not pulling your beating heart from your rib cage and chest and offering it to the audience every night, you're doing it wrong," he said.
One solo performer doing it right is Glenview native Brian Quijada, whose one-man show about growing up Latino begins streaming Monday on the Victory Gardens and Geva Theatre Center websites. Yew directed "Where Did We Sit on the Bus?" locally and off-Broadway.
Quijada, the youngest son of Salvadoran immigrants, earned a Joseph Jefferson Award for solo performance.
"Where Did We Sit on the Bus?" was inspired by the question Quijada posed to his third-grade teacher during a lesson on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. She couldn't answer him.
"That little moment in class blew open my world," said Quijada, who realizes it was a difficult question given the curriculum at the time. But that question sparked other questions about racial identity and family that subsequently informed his first play.
Inspired by hip-hop, Quijada began writing poetry as a youngster. About the same time, he developed a love of theater after attending a production of "Cabaret" at Columbia College Chicago where his brother, Chicago actor/clown/musician Marvin Quijada, attended.
After graduating from Highland Park High School, Brian Quijada attended the University of Iowa where he majored in theater and English. He began performing spoken word poetry there and, after graduating college, moved to New York City where he appeared in a hip-hop play and performed at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe.
"This will be my life," Quijada remembers thinking at the time. "I'll rap, beatbox and act, and this will be my life."
Fast forward a few years. Yew was directing a play in Denver, where Quijada was performing his spoken word poetry. Yew, who knew Marvin Quijada's work, recognized the younger Quijada's talent and invited Quijada to send him his writing.
"It seemed a surreal moment," recalled Quijada. "Nobody had experienced my writing at the time. He was able to identify the writer in me."
About six months later, Quijada delivered a "rough and unwieldy" draft of the story he felt compelled to write.
That draft eventually became "Where Did We Sit on the Bus?" Workshopped at Victory Gardens' 2014 Ignition Festival of New Plays, the play with music premiered two years later at Teatro Vista. Quijada toured around the country with the play before returning to Chicago in 2017 for the remount, which was filmed.
Quijada's "gift of spoken word and his beat boxing was unique," said Yew. "It was a joy to see a familiar story told from a unique point of view in a unique fashion."
The best solo plays make audiences feel they're watching their own history, says Yew. Audiences recognized Quijada's story is "not an isolated story. It's a national story that needs to be shared."
That wasn't always easy, Yew recalled. The play's debut coincided with Donald Trump's presidency, said Yew, and the former president's executive orders including his termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and banning immigrants from certain countries sometimes made the piece difficult for Quijada to perform.
Ultimately, the faith these collaborators had in each other was well-founded. It may have had something to do with having parents who were less than supportive of their children's artistic pursuits, said Quijada.
Eventually his folks came around.
"They were able to see in it a new perspective of the American dream," he said. "Their American dream was to be able to make a living. The American dream for us is being able to do anything."
"What is wonderful about (Quijada's) work is it's about believing in oneself and finding oneself," said Yew. "I can't think of any more American narrative than this one ... to find yourself in the American dream."
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"Where Did We Sit on the Bus?"
When: Streaming, with subtitles available in English and Spanish, courtesy of Victory Gardens Theater and Geva Theatre Center from Monday, Feb. 22, through Sunday, March 7
Where: victorygardens.org or gevatheatre.org
Tickets: $30, $10 for students for viewing anytime during the streaming window