When Brian Quijada learned the story of Rosa Parks, “my head kind of exploded,” he says. An African-American, Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955 Montgomery, Ala., and helped launch the movement to end public segregation in the United States.
“When you’re 8, you only think about yourself and what you’re going through,” Quijada says. “That was the first time I realized there was more than just me. I started thinking about my family history and where we came from. It was a pretty powerful realization.”
He raised his hand and asked the teacher, “Where did people like me sit on the bus?” Her flustered answer that they (Latinos) weren’t there confused him further and would eventually inspire his one-man-show “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” The play opens at Boise Contemporary Theater on Friday, Jan. 13.
Quijada’s show explores the idea of the modern American dream, at a time when immigration questions are at the forefront of politics — again.
“It seems to happen every 10 years or so,” Quijada says. “Now being older and more educated about American government, it makes the show more relevant and sparks a more emotional connection to my telling this story about my parents who came to this country illegally.”
This is the third production for his show. It opened in Chicago in March and received an off-Broadway production in September at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
But before that, while honing the script in the summer of 2015, Quijada met BCT producing artistic director Matthew Cameron Clark at Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in McCall. They were working on Hansol Jung’s “No More Sad Things,” a play that would premiere at BCT that fall. Quijada played the smooth-singing, ukelele-playing narrator. While in Boise for the production, Quijada finished the script for “Bus” and did a reading.
Quijada (pronounced key-hada) is a one-person cultural mash-up. He is the son of El Salvadoran parents who came to the United States to seek a better life for their children. His hard-working blue-collar parents, Eduardo and Reina, have four sons: two born in El Salvador — Fernando and Roberto; two born in America — Marvin and Brian.
The family moved to Highwood, Illinois, when Quijada was very young. It’s a mostly Italian suburb on Chicago’s North Shore that is surrounded by Highland Park, an affluent Jewish suburb where many movies (“Risky Business” and “Home Alone,” for instance) were filmed.
Quijada spoke English at school, Spanish at home and his best friends were Jewish. He grew up watching MTV and wanted to be like Michael Jackson. By high school, he had set his sights on becoming an actor.
“My parents would have been happier if I became a doctor or lawyer,” he says. “It’s funny that the two American brothers are both artists (Marvin is also an actor).”
In 2014, Quijada met Chay Yew at a New Play Summit at the Denver Center. An immigrant from Singapore, Yew is the artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, a company that focuses on new plays. He suggested that Quijada might considering writing one.
“We’re always looking for Chicago stories,” Yew told him.
A dry spell in the acting biz a few months later gave him time to pursue Yew’s proposal. So, Quijada turned to that seminal point of his childhood — the Rosa Parks moment — as a starting point for his story.
“You have to be completely honest when you’re doing a solo show,” Yew says. “You’re asking the audience to believe what you’re talking about. This (Quijada’s) show is completely dynamic. It asks the audience to feel everything. If you can’t tell the story honestly, then don’t waste our time. If you’re going to write it, it’s going to be hard.”
Now that Quijada, 28, is married and thinking of having children of his own, the story became more personal and imperative.
“I wanted to know what I will tell my kids when they ask me that question,” Quijada says.
Quijada’s show is a fast-paced blend of music and spoken word, mixed with a little rap, dance and humor. An incredibly charming performer, his performance is completely captivating.
He layers music and snippets of his audio biography by looping, a process that uses a computer to record, repeat and layer short sections of sound material. That creates the beat and the base that allows his ideas to take shape.
The technology adds a rich undercurrent to his version of the classic American tale.
“There are parts that connect with everybody,” he says. “It’s nice to tell the story and see we’re not divided — that this experience is what connects us. For people who think the American dream is dead, it’s not. I’m the embodiment of it being realized.”
Opening at BCT
8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, through Jan. 28; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Jan. 21 and 28, Boise Contemporary Theater, 854 Fulton St. $34 Fridays-Saturdays. Tickets: $25 Wednesdays-Thursdays, $20 matinees, $16 all student tickets., ($18 previews, Jan. 11-12). 331-9224, Ext. 205; BCTheater.org.