“Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” is a courageous, bombastic, entirely engaging one-person play about growing up Latino in suburban Chicago in the 1990s. Marin Theatre Company presents the West Coast premiere of playwright Brian Quijada’s autobiographical story, which begins when he is introduced to Rosa Parks and civil rights issues in elementary school and realizes that he is not white, not Black, but Latino. This causes him to wonder, “Where did we sit on the bus?”
Satya Chávez (they/she/he) as Bee Quijada narrates the story with song and dance and a presentation so dazzling it leaves the audience breathless after the show’s 90-minutes. Her singing voice can handle anything she chooses: ballads, gospel songs, opera arias—all delivered with perfect phrasing and brilliant colors. She plays keyboard and so many different guitars you can’t keep up as she explores the lives of her Salvadoran immigrant parents and Latinx life in the U.S.
There’s more: As Chávez moves about the stage, she carries a live looper that records a musical phrase and plays it back instantly so that she can layer it with voice or instruments as she goes. Chávez is literally her own ensemble, an orchestra of grand proportions.
The narrative unfolds at breakneck speed: After the teacher explains that Bee wasn’t on that bus where Blacks sat in back and whites in front because Latinos weren’t around, it’s off and running. There is a hilarious turn where her flirty mother Reina conquers her father’s heart; there is a trip through the name “Quijada” (“jaw” in Spanish), and she remembers her adulation of Michael Jackson (yes, she can moon dance, too).
In a section of the play called “White Bred,” she remembers moving from trailer park to suburb, and her father’s difficult life as a trucker and dream that his four children will one day wear suits to work, which Bee will never do.
Her relationship with her Swiss-Austrian wife comes through powerfully, too, as she ponders how their children will deal.
Quijada’s high-flying autobiographical play, tightly staged by Matt Dickson and with a sizable tech team, does a lot more than skate on the surface. It considers the plight of immigrants and makes a potent plea to “let them in, let them in.”
It’s difficult to know what the future of the play will be. As a friend commented, “I can’t imagine finding others like Chávez who can carry it off.” Still, the play represents a promising new direction: Actors will be found, and its message will be heard.
“Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” continues through May 28 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$65; call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.