A Conversation with Brian Quijada
Written by Margarita Javier
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
September 22, 2016
The Chicago born, New York based writer and performer Brian Quijada is young, witty, energetic, talented and oozing charisma. His technologically ingenious hip-hop, dance and poetry infused one man show Where Did We Sit On The Bus? is currently playing through October 9 at Ensemble Studio Theater. The title of the piece comes from an episode in Brian’s childhood when, during a third grade lesson on the Civil Rights movement and Rosa Parks, Brian – suddenly realizing his people were not represented in this story – raised his hand and asked the titular question. His teacher’s dismissive response prompted a lifelong examination of the role of latinos in the US historical narrative and of his own personal history. I sat down with Brian after a matinée of his show to talk about his upbringing, his creative process, latino identity, the political climate, and the future of diversity and representation in the theatrical world.
Margarita Javier: This is the first time I’ve ever seen a show where they say, “There’s use of Bluetooth technology, turn off your phones or else there’s going to be interference.” Has there been interference at any of the performances?
Brian Quijada: Today there was interference.
MJ: Do you have to stop the show when that happens?
BQ: No. Luckily today it just happened while I was already [onstage], and it just requires me to press a button that reconnects. But we’re prepared; there are a few moments in the show that we are prepared to accommodate when I can’t go back [behind the equipment]. Luckily, though, here the audiences have been pretty good about it. So that’s good.
[Editor’s Note: Read about the technology Brian uses here.]
MJ: I saw the show, and I was blown away.
MJ: It was absolutely fantastic. It’s very close to my heart. I’m from Puerto Rico, and I brought my friend from Puerto Rico, and we were talking about how much we identified with it and how wonderful it is. And after the show she was texting her husband, “You have to see the show. Tines que venir a verlo.” So I just wanted to let you know how much I loved it and can’t wait to talk about it.
BQ: Oh my God, thank you.
MJ: She actually wanted me to ask you: When you’re recording with the Looper, do you ever save those recordings or listen to them after the show, or do you discard them?
BQ: I discard them. Well, the play actually started with improvisational looping, à la Reggie Watts. Reggie Watts is one of my favorite loopers. He just totally improvises everything, and that’s how I started developing the show – through improvisational loops. And the ones that I really liked I would save. But the looping that’s in the show is kind of now set. Sometimes I don’t have perfect pitch, so it’s sometimes a little different, different ranges of my voice, but it’s the same construct. But improvising the loop is how I first developed the show.
MJ: Can you talk a little more about the development of the show? Where did the idea come from? How has it grown from when it started to what it is now?
BQ: I was at the Denver Center and I was working in a different show, and I was looping. I’m in a band. We’re not really a real band, we go to theater conferences and perform there [laughs]. My friend and playwright Idris Goodwin is the rapper; I’m the looper. Chay Yew, who directed the piece, saw us perform and afterwards came up to me. He’s the artistic director of Victory Gardens in Chicago, and when I used to live in Chicago, I auditioned for him. And he says, “Do you ever write plays?” And I’m like, “No, not really. I write poems.” I felt stupid [laughs]. Very dumb. And he said, “Well, if you ever write anything about Chicago, let us know.” And so a few months later I wrote this piece and then I submitted it to terraNOVA Collectives soloNOVA. And they accepted it, and then I was like, “Hey Chay, by the way, you told me to write a play. I mean, you didn’t tell me to write a play but you were like, hey!” And I sent it to them and they liked it, and now I’m doing it over there. And then it went to Ignition Festival with Chay; we worked on it together. It went to the Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center. I kind of developed it at these theater conferences. Anytime I had a little support…people wanting me to workshop it around the country. And then it premiered in Chicago earlier this year.
MJ: And now you’re here.
BQ: And now I’m here!
MJ: I thought the direction and the overall aesthetics were really impressive. I loved the use of projections. How much of that is coming from you, and how much is it a collaboration with the director and the designers?
BQ: Very little was coming from me. I didn’t tell them to do anything. They read the script and Liviu Pasare – who did the projection design – it was his interpretation. He’d worked a lot with Chay. I think the only thing that I was fascinated with was the Michael Jackson blocks. Because it’s not like the choreography is the same. It’s an Xbox Kinect Sensor that reads where I’m walking on the stage, which is amazing. The design is great. The lighting designer is just mind blowingly good. All those aesthetics and the blocking and all, I really had very little to do with it [laughs]. But I’m happy that I was in great hands.
MJ: You’re doing pretty much everything onstage. You’re acting, you’re singing, you’re playing instruments, you’re dancing, you’re rapping. What do you do to prepare when you’re backstage?
BQ: I dance. There’s a little bit of dancing. I like to go over the text. Because I also wrote it in a certain mindset. Sometimes I’m saying a line and I go over line notes and I’m like, “Oh. The way that I wrote it is better than the way that the actor in me is saying it.” So I go over super simple but really huge notes. It’s a solo show; it’s not like a play where you’re talking to a character. It’s talking to the audience. It changes based on who’s in the audience and it changes every night. The big note that I keep repeating to myself over and over backstage is to talk to the audience and not at them. And that’s also something that I work on throughout the run. I don’t want it to become stale and the same. So reminding myself to be honest and talk to the people is important to me.
MJ: The show is obviously very autobiographical. Can you talk about your upbringing?
BQ: My parents are from El Salvador. They came here in the 70s. They already had two children, Fernando and Roberto. And then they had me and my brother Marvin, and they gave us those names to give us easier lives, I guess, in the States. And we first moved to a Trailer Park, cause that’s what my parents could afford. And then my dad started making a little more money and we moved to a ‘burb that’s surrounded by a very affluent – I would say 70% Jewish town. You can’t leave my town, where I grew up, without going into their town. I remember being the first latinos on our block, which was all Italian. And now when I go back and visit my parents it’s a latino street, which is great. It’s blasting a lot of music [laughs]. Going to middle school and high school was a weird culture shock. I was just like, “What is this? What is Jewish?” And then going to people’s houses and being like, “Your house is enormous. What do your parents do?” And then I started becoming really great friends with my new Jewish friends and then you kind of have an identity crisis. But anyway, this “Where did we sit on the bus?” moment that the play is named after, to me was the supernova. Asking my third grade teacher that question and her responding, “They weren’t around,” it flipped my mind. It was the first time that I was just like, “Where the hell were we in history?” There’s a whole other thing that I feel about the way that history is taught in the public school system. That’s, honestly, I think a totally separate show that needs to be tackled. It’s something else. But yeah, my upbringing was moving around and new cultures, and a cultural explosion for me throughout my life.
MJ: Since you mentioned that comment the teacher made in the classroom, I had a question about that, because it really stuck with me, when she said, “They weren’t around.” And I was like, “What do you mean we weren’t around? We’ve been around since the 17th century! Look at the names of some of the towns in this country, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, those are Spanish names!”
BQ: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, totally!
MJ: So it’s blatantly false and it speaks to what you were talking about – the gaps in education in this country. And I feel like maybe it’s the role of the artist to fill in those gaps, to tell the stories of the people that have been marginalized.
BQ: Yeah, totally!
MJ: Do you think that’s one of the roles of art? Is it your intent to maybe educate people about these gaps in narrative history?
BQ: I think the beginning wasn’t that. I didn’t feel that a story like ours was being told often enough, so I was just like, “Well, I’m gonna tell it!” Cause who is gonna write a show for me where I get to play a bunch of instruments and beatbox, sing, and dance? Nobody. So I’m gonna do it. And then later as I started working on it, people were like, “This is my story” or “This touched me because I love Michael Jackson” or “This touched me because my parents are Polish” and “Your parents are my parents” or “This touched me because I’m an artist.” And then I felt an obligation to write in more things that – it’s still honest, but it’s a little more opinionated where I’m like, “Ok, we need to talk about the political climate right now.” But I don’t think it started that way. It was just me trying to tell an infrequently told story.
MJ: Speaking about politics, there’s a moment in the show when you make a very impassioned speech about immigration. You keep repeating, “Let them in,” which to me felt like an act of rebellious compassion. Just let them in. Which is something that for some of us who are immigrants or have parents who are immigrants rings true. Yet it’s still one of the most hotly debated issues in this country. So what would you say to detractors, or people who say things like, “Well, why can’t they just immigrate legally”?
BQ: Listen, the thing is that I don’t think that this show, nor I have an answer for the immigration policies. I think it’s a little too complex to really go into it. It’s already messed up. I don’t have the answer, but there needs to be a little more compassion, I think. And that’s why I feel that it’s important to have people who don’t believe, or are not with my certain opinions, that they should come. Even though it scares me very much to have somebody who doesn’t agree with me watch this show, I think it’s important. Because I think that what’s missing is being able to hear the story from a person who you see as a human first and not as a stereotype. The biggest thing that warms my heart is if people who watch the show would leave being like “Oh I see things just a slightly bit different than I used to.” In a good way. You know? That’s the best.
MJ: Speaking about immigration, I did notice that there was a line in the show where you said, “All latinos are rapists,” which I felt was a reference to Donald Trump’s comments during this election cycle.
MJ: Are you influenced by current events and then you write it into the show, or do you feel it’s pretty much set?
BQ: That Donald Trump line, I couldn’t help it, it’s unavoidable. It’s so big, it’s so scary right now, and putting that into the show felt like a no brainer. The thing is, a lot of people are like, “Oh, this show is so relevant right now!” And it’s relevant always, I think. It’s just that right now it’s hot because somebody just said something really racist. But I think that it’s relevant always; it’s just that we forget about it a little bit. We put it in the back of our heads and we put it on the back burner. But really, it’s still burning, it’s still right there, it’s just that now we’re talking about it again. You know? That’s why when Colin Kaepernick sits down or he doesn’t stand, all of a sudden it’s fired up again. But no, it’s still always been there. It’s just fresh.
MJ: I feel like latino identity is an important part of the show. Being latina myself, every country in Latin America is so different and so distinct.
MJ: We each have our own culture, and Mexico is different from El Salvador and from Puerto Rico and from Cuba. And yet in this country, we always do talk about a unified latino identity. Why do you feel that it’s important to talk about latinos as a unified whole?
BQ: I think because as a country the United States unifies us so much that we stick together. So that when Donald Trump says something about Mexico, we’re all affected. Even though, yes, the small town where I grew up is now all Mexican, and I’m not Mexican, what can we do but unify, really? Somebody told me recently that we like to stick to our traditions, which is true. But there is this other half of our brains, I think, that is trying really hard to assimilate, and fit into the norm that is American culture and society. But it’s hard to let go of the traditions, nor do I want to lose those traditions. That’s in the show, where I say, “Am I going to speak Spanish and you’ll speak German?” to my fiancée, who’s Austrian and Swiss. I have something deep within me that wants to pass on what was passed on to me because I find so much comfort in my racial and cultural identity.
MJ: I feel the same way. There’s been some talk recently about there being greater diversity in the theater world than ever before, especially when you look at the success of a show like Hamilton.
BQ: No doubt!
MJ: But do you hope, like I do, that it’s a trend that’s going to continue, or is it a fluke?
BQ: Oh man, I don’t know! I think I’m always going to lean on the hopeful side of “Yeah! This is the beginning of something great!” But I really don’t know. What’s cool is that there is, like Ensemble Studio Theater, a great place that said, “Yeah, let’s do this show! We want to include the untold stories.” And that’s what’s great; it’s going from the smaller theaters to the Broadway scale theaters, which are finally being like, “Let’s maybe listen to something else. Let’s try to take in an American story in a completely new way, in a new light.” I hope so. Hamilton is pretty remarkable in the way that it kind of just opened up a cast of, what, 30, 40 people of color to show up there and play these familiar faces that have been on our money. It’s kind of beautiful; it’s a beautiful thing.
MJ: Yeah, and it’s putting people of color in the audience as well.
MJ: If we want more diversity onstage, we have to have more diversity in the audience, because that’s where artists are born. You know, you were watching Michael Jackson on MTV and wanted to do that.
MJ: Is that your goal? Cause I’ve noticed the audience is pretty diverse.
BQ: That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to reach out to a youthful, people of color audience. They’re making an effort to reach out to the latino community, to the young urban spoken word kind of audiences. Because that’s what it is, really, it’s a whole bunch of spoken word poetry and rap put onstage. And it’s real. It’s such a part of me and my brother Marvin’s experience growing up in Chicago land. It was such a no-brainer that that’s how we would begin to express ourselves. We listened to hip-hop and that became the way of storytelling. “The art of storytelling,” like the rapper Slick Rick. I’m happy that they’re making an effort to reach out to a new audience that doesn’t usually sit in those seats.
MJ: I noticed there were people in the audience who were older and white, and they were like, “Oh the show is fantastic!”
BQ: [Laughs] Yeah, right!
MJ: So it’s also great to appeal to that audience as well.
BQ: Yeah! I think that a show like this shouldn’t feel like anybody’s excluded. It shouldn’t feel like that. To me this show is a celebration of the path that this country is going in. Hopefully. That maybe there’s a little bit of humanity and compassion in all of us, and if we unite we’ll be able to come out all right. This is the country that experiments, so let’s try to go into this experimentation with good vibes and good intentions. And that’s something that – it’s easy to be like, “Nah! Nah! I’m not down with that!” You know what I mean? But you have to embrace the fact that we’re all in this big bus together trying to get somewhere.
MJ: You talk a lot about your relationship with your parents in the show, especially your father, which I thought was very relatable to a lot or artists. That idea of maybe your parents don’t fully approve of your career choice. Have your parents seen the show, and what did they think?
BQ: They have. They saw the show. They saw it front row opening night in Chicago. And before that, they saw it at Ignition Festival, which is Victory Garden’s new play festival at Chay Yew’s theater. I’ll sum it up with this one story where my dad had just gotten out of the show. Ignition Festival’s free for all, which is amazing. And a guy came up to my dad and he’s just like, “Hey, are you Brian’s father?” And he’s just like, “Yeah, yeah. I’m his dad.” And he’s just like, “Oh my God, I just saw a show at the Goodman, I paid $65” – No shots on Goodman, no shots on Goodman. Love the Goodman! – But this guy was just like, “I paid $65 for a show at the Goodman, and that shit sucked! I paid zero dollars for this show, and this show was amazing!” And my dad said, “Thank you, thank you.” And then he came up to me and he was just like, “Brian, you could really make some money doing this show.” [Laughs] And I’m like, “Of course that’s what you’re gonna say, dad! It’s so typical!” And it made sense. My relationship with my dad now that he’s kind of given me the go-ahead with doing art – and especially now that I’m getting married and we’re talking about having kids – is that I finally, now, after so many years of him being like, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, please!” I get it. Because I’m about to get married, maybe have kids in a few years and I get it. Of course! He doesn’t want his kids to die. He doesn’t want his children to starve.
MJ: Right, it’s coming from a good place.
BQ: It’s coming from a great place, and before I was just like, “He just wants to cramp my style! He just wants to stunt me!” And I didn’t get it. And I totally understand now. And so we have a much better relationship. He’s still on the whole, “You have no idea how much I did to make sure that we could afford a house, a car – that you could afford to go to college.” But I think he’s finally seeing that the American Dream is not a one-way street.
MJ: You have a strong theatrical background, so I was wondering: What is your dream role?
BQ: Oh man! The very first play that I ever saw was Cabaret. I saw it in Chicago, and when I saw it I went home and just listened to the soundtrack. Alan Cumming. The original, well, not the original, and not the recent one, but the original revival. And for my birthday a couple of years ago, I went to go see it again, and he was in it, and it was the most amazing thing. I was crying the entire time. Just dying of tears. Because it brought me back. Of course, I don’t know that I could ever do it. It would be a very crazy world where they’d cast a Latin dude to play a German guy or a French guy.
MJ: But Raúl Esparza played the Emcee!
MJ: Yeah, you could totally do it!
BQ: It’s gonna happen! You’ve given me so much faith! It’s gonna happen! Yeah, I would love to play that part. That part is amazing. And that play is just so political as well, and so great and beautiful, and dark, and lovely and funny. Yeah, Cabaret. It’s the first play; you have such a deep connection to the first play you ever see.
MJ: I wonder if you wanted to talk about your new project, Kid Prince and Pablo.
BQ: Yes, Kid Prince and Pablo was at Ars Nova. I was asked to write it for Texas Tech University, for their WildWind Performance Lab, where they bring in artists who are doing the work and established and write a new play. And it serves as new play development and a way for the theater students to have conversations with and collaborate with professional artists. So the new play takes place in the future of an alternate universe of America, where when America seceded from England, they sat their own monarch. So it’s still a king in the United States but it’s in the future so at this point, everybody’s mixed race, everybody is brown, for the most part, except the Royal family, who stayed white. And it’s set in this hip-hop world where the Prince is this aspiring rapper, and this poor pauper, this Mexican boy, whose name is Pablo, is a bucket drummer. It’s based off Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper story. So when they switch spots, Pablo, who barely speaks a lick of English, has technology, futuristic, beautiful hip-hop technology to be able to make beats and become a producer. And the Prince is kind of like, “What is this, what are these streets? What are these colored people?” Blah blah. And through his hardships is able to actually rap about something as opposed to rap about, you know, what I like to compare it to is being in the club, popping bottles, a life of luxury. And then finally he experiences something real to rap about. And it’s the same thing. Trading places, etc. I’m working on it with my brother, his name is Marvin. He’s an actor, too, so you can imagine what my parents were like.
MJ: Oh your parents must love that!
BQ: [Laughs] My parents were like, “We had two kids in the States for them to become artists.” They’re dealing with it. Yeah, no he’s done well. He’s done Chicago PD, and Chicago Fire. He still lives in Chicago, he’s doing well. He’s great. We’ve never really worked on a play together, so, and we’re both actors and I’m writing plays now, after this one.
MJ: You should absolutely keep writing.
BQ: Yeah, I’m excited about it.
MJ: So what are your hopes for this show?
BQ: I didn’t know that people would be like, “This is an important story.” Because, again, I started just telling it because I feel like I needed to tell it for myself, for my own health. But now that I’m seeing people respond to it and I’m going to some colleges to talk about it and teach workshops, I’m realizing that it’s a story that I think other people also need. So I’m hoping that whatever it means to have the most amount of people watch it and see it, that’s what I want. Isn’t that the point of all art? To have as many people watch it? And I know that this is a play that will not, on a totally broad scale get everybody.
MJ: It has a very wide appeal, though.
BQ: Yeah, yeah, but still, there are some people who are just like, “Nah!” But my hope is that people at least take something away from it. Whether it be a red state or a blue state, or whether it be in a big city like New York, or we’re going to Boise in January, so we’ll see how it goes there. I’m very excited. My friends run the company over there, Boise Contemporary. So we’ll see. You cross your fingers that people like it and continue to talk about it.
MJ: Yes, I’m sure they will, because it’s fantastic.
MJ: Finally, what would you say to young artists, especially young latinos, who are now getting started? Any words or wisdom or advice?
BQ: If there’s anything that I’ve learned out of doing all this is that every story is worth telling. Every story is worth telling. I didn’t think that I had it within me to do this, until somebody was like, “You should write a play!” And I’m like, “Oh ok! I’ll write what I know.” I didn’t know that I had the capacity to write something where designers would sit at home and conceive of design, whether it be light or set or projections. That’s insane! And it wouldn’t have happened if somebody hadn’t just said, “Do it. Just go home and write it.” I guess that’s the advice. There’s no one stopping you other than yourself.
Brian Quijada is a Chicago-born, New York-based actor, musician, and playwright. As an actor, Brian has helped develop new work across the country. New York collaborations include: Ensemble Studio Theatre, Repertorio Español, The Lark, The Brick, Page 73, Atlantic Theatre Company, Up Theatre, Astoria Performing Arts Center, Primary Stages, TerraNOVA Collective, LAByrinth, New Georges, The Public, and Playwright’s Realm. Regional: How We Got On(Actor’s Theater of Louisville’s Humana Festival), Beat Generation by Jack Keroac (Merrimack Rep), The Solid Sand Below by Martin Zimmerman (The Eugene O’Neill’s National Playwright’s Conference), No More Sad Things by Hansol Jung (Boise Contemporary Theatre), andInformed Consent by Deborah Laufer (The Baltic Playwright’s Conference in Estonia). Most recently, Brian was seen performing in his newest play development, Kid Prince and Pablo (a Digital Age, Hip Hop, American retelling of Mark Twain’s The Prince and The Pauper) at Ars Nova’s Ant Fest.