“Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” Rolls to a Stop—at MTC
Brian Quijada’s Musical Unravels a Latin Life
by Patricia L. Morin
In class at a young age, Satya Chávez attempts to understand the defiance of Rosa Parks, a Black woman, when she sat down in the white people’s section on a segregated bus. Chávez, as a Brown girl, innocently asks the teacher: “Where did we sit on the bus?”
Thanks to the dynamic work of Scenic Designer Tanya Orellana and Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago, the stage pops with a dynamic Broadway flair. Beginning in the womb, Chávez, singer, actor, and musician, creates a wonderful image of being born under bright red lights: “Womb, Cocoon, into the room … boom.”
Chávez, a non-binary person, presents their solo memoir with a plethora of rhymes by playwright Brian Quijada, along with songs written by the singer. Chávez has an incredible range of acapella chants. The repeated sequence of notes played on the piano resonate as Chávez sings them in different scales, called “looping.” Their extraordinary talent unfolds the story of Chávez’s very achieved life up to age 28.
Huge square neon arches flash in bright tints, adding a dynamic glow to each scene. Stringed instruments of varying sounds line up behind an electric piano. Some songs blend beautifully with their stories, thanks to the help of Sound Designer Lame Elms.
Chávez uses simple songs with repetitive choruses to describe their struggles as a Brown kid with mainly white friends. Chávez handles bias with the force inherent in their music and songs. Their energy resounds through the audience, and I am impressed with the performer’s stamina. One song, “H.O.P.E,” though, does feel oversimplified.
Chávez wanted to be an actor, which they achieve by performing roles from Michael Jackson in elementary school to Macbeth in high school. Rapping about Michael Jackson time, they assert, “Brown kids, wanting to be Black kids that want to be White kids,” examining racial issues.
In Quijada’s script, they encounter very little dramatic conflict on the path to success. At one point I wondered if Chávez might share more about their immigrant parents’ struggle that led to a comfortable life. We discover that Chávez’s worst family difficulty stems from their father’s disliking their choice to become a multi-faceted entertainer, rather than a doctor or lawyer.
At times, the narration strays into lecturing: “Don’t forget where you came from,” she warns us.
We do, however, learn the answer to: “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?”
Director Matt Dickson keeps the flow moving swiftly and shines the light on their larger-than-life image.
Chávez reminds us of the vitality of a people who belong on stage more often in our diverse world.
“Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” –written by Brian Quijada, with additional compositions by Satya Chávez, directed by Matt Dickson, at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, California. Info: MarinTheatre.org – to Sunday, May 28, 2023.
Cast: Satya Chávez
Banner photo: Satya Chávez as ‘Bee Quijada’ – Photos by Kevin Berne