In a volatile era when the ongoing battle against systemic racism is usually broken down into black and white, the title of Brian Quijada's new solo show seems poised to explode that binary misconception. And there are moments when this charismatic multi-hyphenate (performer-poet-playwright-rapper-live looper-musician) starts to go down that complicated road, where the potential to educate or offend loom about equal. Yet in the end, Quijada settles for an autobiographical, child-of-first-generation-immigrants tale, which is likeable and relatable, if not particularly revelatory.
If he were an artist of lesser talents, it might not matter. But the Chicago run of this heartfelt confessional—which he's been developing for two years with director Chay Yew—earned him comparisons to Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Leguizamo. I don't think those are apt (moreover, they're possibly racist). However, it's clear that the young Quijada is something special. He's just playing it too safe.
After proposing to his white girlfriend, Quijada—whose El Salvadoran parents originally entered the U.S. illegally—wonders what life will be like for their as-yet-unborn, mixed-heritage children. Using his ethnicity as connective tissue, he traces his entire life, from inside his mother's womb, to the Chicago suburbs, to college, to his move to NYC to be an actor. His impersonations of a not-always-supportive mom and dad are alternately amusing and affecting. He tells a wonderful tall tale about a made-up, massive-mouthed ancestor. (Quijada means "jaw" in Spanish.) He enthuses about Michael Jackson and raves about brisket, which he eats at a Jewish friend's much bigger house. Some of these moments are punctuated by songs (he's a solid beatboxer and electric ukulele player) and more powerful poems.
But aside from the title query, which he poses during a third-grade civil-rights lesson, the performer eschews uncomfortable questions. How does he feel after his Latino friends accuse him of dumping them for gringos? Does he envy his wealthier, whiter friends? Was he ever embarrassed by his trucker parents and brothers? How did his parents become citizens? Aside from being called "quesadilla," what kind of racism has he experienced? These subjects come up: There's a poignant memory of eating with his family on the "white" side of town and being ignored by the waitstaff, but they're not explored in any depth. Quijada quickly moves on to the next beat, not wanting to ruin the rhythm of our good time. And it is a good time that spotlights his many skills, capped by a pro-immigration poem that, like much of the show, feels like rapping to the choir. I'd definitely hear his song again, I just hope next time it will be less familiar.
Ensemble Studio Theatre (Off Broadway). Written and performed by Brian Quijada. Directed by Chay Yew. Running time: 1hr 30min. No intermission. Through Oct 9. Click here for full venue and ticket information.
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