Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Where Did We Sit on the Bus?
Also see Patrick's review of Chinglish
Chávez absolutely owns the stage as Bee, playing guitar, keyboards, percussion, and singing during the course of the show, revealing to us one artist's story of coming of age in a world where fulfilling dreams requires breaking down barriers–of parental expectations, societal strictures, systemic racism, and cultural ghettoization.
Quijada's play (directed with tremendous finesse and sensitivity by Matt Dickson) begins with a joyous moment–a proposal of marriage. Though there are no tears (even though "YouTube is littered with girls crying at the sight of the ring"), the proposal is accepted. When Bee begins to consider the daunting prospect of having and raising children, they rocket back to their earliest days. So early in fact, that they are in the womb. Note: I've used the pronoun "they" here, because although the character is based on Brian Quijada's life, Chávez–who is comfortable with all three pronouns (they/she/he)–plays the role with perfect gender fluidity. For what matters here is not the gender of the teller of the tale, but the tale itself.
It is a universal tale for artists–a desire to perform, to create beauty, to connect with an audience and get us to think and question and marvel, and of all the hurdles that stand in the way of those desires. Chávez takes us through every step of Quijada's youth, from the womb to kindergarten to third grade, where the young Quijada, during a lesson on Rosa Parks, asks the teacher "where did we sit on the bus," inspiring a quest in the budding artist to understand their place in society. In high school they fall in with the drama kids and end up playing one of the assassins in Sondheim's Assassins and Skimbleshanks in Cats before moving on to the University of Iowa, where they finally fully embrace their destiny as a performer.
All of this is told with tremendous humanity, wit and empathy–and lots of musical and technical wizardry from Chávez. The live loops they create become rhythms and backgrounds for songs and raps, with the samples sometimes relating to the content in the moment, as when Lamaze breathing techniques become beatbox-like rhythms during the segment when Bee is being born. When the angsty, emo moments of adolescence are being performed, Chávez builds a loop on the phrase "Everything is happening so fast with me knowing–no time to ask the questions I should ask."
The set by Tanya Orellana is composed of staggered lighted frames that don't quite meet, yet expand to become more open the farther downstage they are, reinforcing the artist's journey from the womb to adulthood.
By the time Bee brings us into the present, they are no longer an adolescent with big dreams, but a fully formed adult aware of the challenges racism still puts in their path, yet optimistic and hopeful. In the penultimate scene, Bee embraces the diversity of who they are–"I am the Star-Spangled Banner...the Haitian barber...the homeless woman"–and exhorts us to open ourselves to that diversity, as well. As for that iconic bus, the one that represents the worst of Jim Crow era policies, well, it's "in the past." Still, Quijada reminds us, the bus still "needs work."
If this show needs work, it would be primarily in visual terms. Though the performance is powerful and moving, I can't help but think a few images to reinforce the times and attitudes being discussed would add even more force to this engaging and entertaining look at an artist's life and experiences.
But don't you sit, get a ticket!
Where Did We Sit on the Bus? runs through May 28, 2023, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays - Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit marintheatre.org or call the box office at 415-388-5208.