Arts and Culture

Brian Quijada describes his work “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” as a “theatrical mixed tape” of his life, written when he was looking for his next acting gig.

“I think it was a want and a need for some, for a piece that fit my particular set of skills and my story, which I wasn’t seeing a lot of,” Quijada said.

And so this coming-of-age story about race, family and identity began to take shape. 

But having performed it since 2016, the Chicago-raised, now New York-based performer, playwright and composer said he was ready to move on from the piece, feeling “anxious about the election coming up.” Then Actors Theatre of Louisville reached out wanting to include the work in its 2020-2021 show. 

Quijada said, “yes,” so long as he wasn’t the one to perform it — handing it over to another performer was already something on his mind. He and director Matt Dickson got to work on adapting the show for another actor. Then, COVID hit.

“When we were discussing this months ago, we were so in the unknown, we were so in the dark about a lot of things that we were like, cool, let’s make a movie? Theater? I don’t know, like, let’s try to make something in between,” Quijada said of early discussions he and Dickson had about adapting it for the screen. They first brainstormed different ways to still do it in person while keeping everyone safe.

The result is indeed something in between, a virtual piece that somehow feels cinematic and like live theater at the same time, which Actors Theatre is streaming now through May 31. 

Initial Inspiration

The title, “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?,” harkens back to a childhood memory, a 3rd grade lesson on Rosa Parks, the Black civil rights leader who famously refused to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of a segregated city bus in Alabama in December 1955. Parks was arrested and it became a catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott

In the play, a young Quijada raises his hand to ask the teacher a question during this “very important lesson, a look into history and how we’ve all gotten into the present.” 

“Well, where were we?” the young Quijada, whose parents immigrated from El Salvador, asks the teacher. “Latinos, where did we sit on the bus?”

The teacher is stumped by the question, and there’s a long pause before she answers. 

“Oh, they weren’t around,” she answers.  

It’s a response that sends the young Quijada’s mind spinning: “We weren’t around?!… Where were our men and women and children, and from which fountain did we drink?”

Quijada said that moment brought up so many questions for him, as a young Latinx kid, about where his family fit into American history. 

The 2016 work actually opens with another big question. Newly married, his wife of Austrian and Swiss heritage, he wonders in the play how he’ll share his own story with the children he hopes to have some day. 

Adapting It, Twice

Satya Chávez plays the role of Bee Quijada, “the new Brian Quijada of the show.” 

Adapting the show for a queer female Mexican-American voice went well, Chávez said, because there was a lot she could relate to in the original text.

“It left a lot of holes in regards to what it means to be queer and have Latinx identity,” she said. “Similarly, there are also holes in its messaging of where did we sit on the bus as Latinos because we also have Black Latinos in our community, who would know very clearly where they sat on the bus… [the show], it’s an immigrant story, it’s about immigrating to this country and what that process entails.”

Adapting it for the screen, though, proved to be more challenging, Matt Dickson said. Dickson, who is white, was involved in the initial development of the show and directed this digital version. 

Dickson said he and Chávez had to work out their “capture methodology” remotely, as the two have never met in person. 

They used an app that allowed Chávez to share her phone screen on her computer — she filmed the entire thing on her iPhone — then share her computer screen with Dickson over Zoom, so he could see what her camera was capturing. 

“And it became a game of trust, where Satya couldn’t see herself and so it was a lot of me saying move two inches to the left,” Dickson, who spent some of his childhood in Louisville, said. “But she did everything. She said actor, but she was the entire film crew.”

That meant Chávez also had to set up scenes, plus wardrobe, hair and makeup, and checking to make sure all of the correct microphones were turned on. 

She also looped all of the music, which they filmed in a way to “stay true to the liveness” of it.

“That is the raw vocal. This is the raw moment,” Chávez said, adding that some of the songs were done in a single take. “So every little lick and run and even little mistake, we just decided to keep trying to preserve that liveliness of it… What you hear is not anything that has been mastered, or affected or …autotuned.”

Remounting The Work In 2020

Chávez said it took many hours and tears to put the digital version together. 

“We have spent such isolated time together in our Zoom squares making this, that it’s very easy to lose sight of the why,” she said. “And I [recently] got to watch this show with my father, who is an immigrant himself and became a naturalized citizen in the 70s or 80s.”

She and Dickson are grateful to have had something to work on when so many in their industry don’t. 

Dickson said, working on a virtual version of “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?,” rekindled his excitement for the “future of theater.”

“I feel really charged about the possibilities of this new medium,” he said. “My hope is that, as institutions figure out how to make this work, [they] continue to develop infrastructure and re-examine the systems. In this new age of digital hybridity, I’m excited for the possibility of those changes.”

As for creator Brian Quijada, revisiting this work comes with mixed emotions. 

He’s happy people still want to see it. He’s thrilled to have new life breathed into it. But he also feels “sadness,” he said. 

“It would be awesome if this, one day, is like a timepiece, like we have immigration reform and we kind of have empathy for the American immigrant.”

A song from the show called  “H-O-P-E,” “rings really, really honest again,” he said. 

“H-O-P-E, one word, four letters that will set me free. H-O-P-E. This is what I need.”

Actors Theatre of Louisville will stream “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” through May 31, 2021. More information, including how to purchase tickets, can be found here

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.