Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.
Satya Chávez as Bee Quijada in "WHERE DID WE SIT ON THE BUS?"
Sure, I've lost some degree of patience after being restrained by Covid for the last 17 months, so let's jump to the conclusion: You should find a way to see the current show at the Cleveland Play House. "Where Did We Sit on the Bus?" is an innovative and absorbing one-person show employing the Latin rhythms that nurtured its creator and original performer, Brian Quijada. Beyond that, the production features Hamilton-esque touches in regard to its inventive take on storytelling.
Powered by a sonic environment that is more than a soundscape—it is a unique and customized sound universe, a "soundiverse," my neologism, you're quite welcome—and it bristles with layered elements that include rock, hip-hop and R&B. Oh, you say you've heard all that in plays before? Well, how about live looped music, snatches of slam poetry, live looped spoken word, digital finger drumming, and turntablism (which for the uninitiated manipulating records on two or more turntables to create unique sound mixtures).
All that sound magic is created by Quijada, who is the sound supervisor for this production, along with director Matt Dickson and sound designer Curtis Craig. But it would be for naught without the engaging performance of Satya Chavez. She tells the story of Bee Quijada, a first-generation Salvadoran American growing up in Chicago. Her journey starts in the womb (yeah, I know all of ours do, but she brings us in there with her) and extends into her mid-twenties. In between, she spins memories of her family, the stories she's heard about her great-great-great-great-grandfather and her journey through various schools.
Along the way she plays a variety of musical instruments, tweaks some of the staging effects by tapping floor-mounted buttons with her foot, and throws in some cartwheels when appropriate. The storytelling is propulsive as it sweeps you along, with some sections existing as stand-alone songs.
Early on, there is a clever take on her surname Quijada, which teachers and students find hard to pronounce. She provides a lesson, à la Liza Minelli's "Liza with a Z," to help with that: "It's Q not K, not h it's j." She also describes how music is such a compelling part of her life and explains the three different dancers she sees at weddings— the spinners, the hip dancers and the footwork dancers, sharing examples of each.
But there are also the mystifying and hurtful parts of growing up in a foreign culture. When she is taught in school about Rosa Parks, she sensibly wonders: if white people were in the front of the bus and Black people were in back, where did people like her sit? Also, which water fountain did they drink from? Her teacher's abusively dismissive answer: "They weren't around."
Bee fights against this attempted erasure of herself and her people by defiantly insisting on being who she is, and that means pursuing her passion for theater and performing. Chavez prowls, leaps and dances across Lex Liang's lean, function-first set, enhanced by Michael Boll's deft lighting design, where various electronic and acoustic instruments are set out. This is Bee's musical world where Chavez and the design team tell her story in a seamless and continually entertaining stream of words, notes and sound effects.
Sure, there is a message behind all these sonic calisthenics, but the show never goes all treacly at those moments. In middle school, she makes friends with a Jewish boy and is accused by her pals of being "white bread," which leads to another song that reminds her not to forget where she came from and to protect her dreams. Even when she references the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, and when she raps about HOPE, "One word, four letters that'll set me free," you ride with her since the emotion is genuine. And earned.
"Where Did We Sit On The Bus?" is theatrical delight with a big and boisterous heart.
WHERE DID WE SIT ON THE BUS?
Through November 14 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com, 216-241-6000.