Last Saturday afternoon, I took the bus across town to the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. I headed to the newly built Ent center, a silver snake of a building housing the UCCS performing arts program. I was there to see Brian Quijada and Idris Goodwin in a discussion about their enticing mix of musical theatre and solo play. The event was part of the center’s Prologue discussions: pre-show talks with distinguished guests. The show of the night was ‘Oklahoma,’ and this talk was called “Race and the American Stage.”
The main event was Chicago-native Brian Quijada. He is an actor, musician, solo performer, teacher, and looper. He is a hyphenated artist who does much more than the average entertainer, and he is good at it. After graduating from the University of Iowa and spending a year in Illinois, Quijada moved to New York and wrote a solo play that opened to rave reviews, Quijada’s autobiographical show, “Where Did We Sit on the Bus,” won two Jeff Awards and two Drama Desk nominations.
Quijada’s work springs out of a desire to see more Latinx stories like his own. His writing is influenced by deep introspection and analysis of identity. Quijada is the child of Salvadorian immigrants. He grew up in a trailer park where he was the only Latino on the bus going to school. When he moved to a house in a northern suburb of Highwood, he attended a school that was 75 percent Jewish and nearly all white.
Quijada spoke a bit about what it was like growing up light-skinned and Latinx in that environment. “I was too white for my brown friends, too brown for my white friends,” he said. During a class on the civil rights movement, he began to think critically about where he fit in. “Where were we?” he asked. “Latinos? Where did we sit on the bus?” After an uncomfortable silence, the teacher responded. “Oh, they weren’t around.” This encounter was the inspiration for his solo show, but the search for answers to this and similar questions run through all of his work.
On stage beside Quijada was his partner in rhyme, Idris Goodwin. Goodwin is a professor in the department of Theatre and Dance at Colorado College and a world-renowned playwright, writer, and performer. He met Quijada at the University of Iowa while they were both taking a slam-poetry class; Quijada was an undergraduate, and Goodwin was working toward his masters. The two quickly hit it off, writing together and sharing their work. Both write theatre-like poetry, with beats to back them up and lines that flow like lyrics. “It’s a play that’s not exactly a musical, but is musical,” Quijada explained.
The two began working together professionally on a piece that fit this description. Goodwin wanted a beatboxer for a show in development called “How we Got on.” He reached out to Quijada, who at the time was an amateur. Years later in 2016, Quijada was in the opening cast of the show when it premiered in Chicago. The two recently formed a band where all the percussion is vocal, and performances are mostly for talks when the two can get together.
The talk started with the broad question, “What is musical theatre?” The audience answered with what you would expect: big events with large musical numbers, costumes, and a feel-good ending. Quijada wants to make theatre more accessible than that. “I want to make shows you can do in the garage,” he said. His intersectionality transcends the colors of the people in the shows, or, the narrative that defines them. Quijada revolutionizes theatre by creating shows that can be done anywhere for anyone, moving past success defined by money and people, towards art for all. His shows can be performed at theatres for a crowd or in the living room for a friend to similar effect.
Sunday night, Quijada and Goodwin taught a select group of students from both Colorado College and UCCS some of their tricks. Both started by performing poems about their names to teach how to pull a moral from the slow day-to-day. Then Quijada performed an excerpt from “Where Did We Sit on the Bus.” Holly, a student at UCCS, was the first to respond with, “I didn’t think about anything else when you were performing.” Daniel, a Colorado College student, spoke as well. “The music resonated within you in the now. A sparkle sort of just happened.”
To create something like this, there are four main points. One, pose questions to yourself. Two, write about anything you want, just make sure it is in your voice. Three, tell the story through a moment with a clear visual. Four, write as much as you can. In a few minutes, everyone had a story written in the form of poetry or song, or somewhere in between. The room was charged with emotion. They pulled us out of a trance, and then we learned how to loop.
Looping is a way for one performer to create layers of sound on their own. Someone records a short sound or riff, and it plays on a loop. Then they record another, and this one plays over the first. You can add as many as you want, starting or stopping as you please. Quijada used a soundboard for his performance, but to learn the audience used an iPad app. People in the group went up one at a time and spoke or sang into the app, then performed.
It is powerful. The addition of music gives emphasis to every line and sets a rhythm to the performances. It adds depth, making the words somehow three dimensional. Salvador, a student at UCCS, picks up a ukulele and has the audience laughing in the first minute. Brittany, a theatre major at UCCS, makes us think about invisible pain. “What hurts more are the hurts I can’t tell because they didn’t hurt enough.” Anna, another UCCS student, gave a rousing criticism of fat-shaming. “Even as I heard the words ‘you’re beautiful’ from my mother every night, I didn’t believe them.”
Brian Quijada spent less than 24 hours in Colorado Springs, but his art will stay with the students and community for much longer.