John Leguizamo returns to Broadway with his latest play Latin History for Morons, which begins performances October 19 at Studio 54. Leguizamo’s irreverent and powerful solo show spans 3,000 years of Latin history—from Aztec and Incan culture to overlooked contributions of Latin patriots in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and beyond—all brilliantly crammed into a 90-minute evening.
Leguizamo was just 26 years old when his explosive and incisive solo play Mambo Mouth premiered Off-Broadway to a flurry of rave reviews. Hailed as a promising playwright-actor with a preternatural ability to transform himself into a multitude of characters onstage, the fearless Colombian-born artist reshaped the definition of solo theatre, and has gone on to push artistic and cultural boundaries on stage and screen as a playwright, screenwriter, actor, and producer, and beyond.
We asked Leguizamo to take us through his own history as an artist, from the downtown performance art roots that gave life to his first autobiographical play to the emotional discovery the led to Latin History for Morons.
You started out making your own work.
John Leguizamo: It was the 1980s, back in the day, right after Latin freestyle hit, Madonna, tech music, and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam; I felt that I could start coming up with my own stuff. I did Mambo Mouth downtown at all the performance art spaces; Dixon Place, Gusto House—which no longer exists—PS122, HOME, The Kitchen, The Knitting Factory. I used to perform at all those places and do my characters, and then the compilation of all that became Mambo Mouth, which I did at the Orpheum Theatre Off-Broadway.
What originally inspired you to write these shows?
I was going to school with these great actors at NYU, and all my friends were going to five auditions a day, and I was going on one maybe once a month, and they were going up for Shakespeare, and to play lawyers, and doctors, and I’m going up for criminals and murderers. And I’m like, “This just is not right.” I felt equal to them. I felt like we had studied equally, we had performed equally in class, but in the real world it just wasn’t there. And I was like, “You know, this really is not the way I expected life to be, and I’m not going to let it be that way.” So I started writing my stuff as an antidote to the Hollywouldn’t of it all.
You kind of broke the theatrical mold and then invented a new mold for this kind of autobiographical work. Who were the people that first took notice said ‘yes’ when you started out?
It was the performance art-based people—Mark Russell, who now runs Under the Radar at the Public Theater, he was running PS122 back in those days; Ellie Covan at Dixon Place, Randy Rollison from HOME... Camryn Manheim was my stage manager and she was a performer. These were performance art spaces where I felt at home. They gave me the freedom to do one-man shows, because nobody was doing that. Everybody was doing very performative stuff, very arty stuff, or the comedy club stuff, but nobody was doing one-man plays, which is something I helped pioneer, the autobiographical one-man play.
Did you always feel compelled to be a writer, or did it come out of your desire to perform and the drive to create your own work?
I always wanted to write, I just never had the belief that I could. I was writing back in high school, jokes and stuff, I used to have files of what I wrote, but I never really believed in myself until I did Mambo Mouth. I started accruing all these characters and all these monologues, and all of a sudden I felt like I could be a writer and that was the beginning of it.
With a show like Latin History for Morons you have a clear objective of what you want to talk about. What was the process like? So much research went into this project. Was it a different experience?
It’s always a discovery process. I never tackled history before or historical characters, and I was like, “How am I gonna make this palatable and make this interesting to the general public who just come to laugh?” So that was tricky, and at the same time I also fell in love with the history, and I thought that would be fascinating. But the first I performed it in Buffalo, New York, it was too much history for them. They were sick of it. First of all, they were drunk so they didn’t understand half of what I was saying, but they were like, “It’s too much history. I don’t wanna be in school.” And I thought, “Oh, shit. I’m going to rethink the whole thing.” And I started adding analogous moments of my life to the history, just making the history a little funnier, paring it down. But now, since the run at the Public Theater, I got more confident. So, I made some different choices with some historic moments, there’s a little bit more information.
Like all of your self-created work, there’s a personal story behind this play.
The genesis was that my son was being bullied at school. He was going to a fancy private school, and he was being picked on racially. I was like, “Wow, this is crazy.” And I just wanted to give my son facts and words to protect himself. I think violence is the lowest form of communication and I think words are the highest form of communication. I wanted him to defend himself with words and not fisticuffs, and I tried to empower him with that. As I started doing research, I was like, “Oh my God, the combination of my son’s story and the history, I’m actually the one who’s being educated and empowered, and my self worth is boosting. It’s not just my son, it’s me who’s growing as a man.”
You point out in the play that we didn’t learn Latin history in school. It’s not part of the curriculum or in text books. That really struck me personally. They didn’t teach gay history when I was in high school, either. So we end up discovering our own history and cultures for ourselves. It’s frustrating, and really beautiful when you turn those pages and discover these people you’ve never heard about, right?
It’s so true. You have so many emotions when you discover this stuff. First of all, you’re angered, then you’re heartbroken, and then you feel empowered. It’s incredible. It’s like the stages of empowerment, you know? Anger, sadness or loss, and then hilarity. I definitely did feel that. When I learned that we Latin people are the sons and daughters of the American Revolution... Cuban women in Virginia sold their jewelry to feed the patriots. Gálvez, the Latin general in New Orleans, gave $70,000 worth of weapons to George Washington. So we helped finance the American Revolution. Ten thousand Latinos fought. Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans fought in the American Revolution. You never hear about that. You never hear about those contributions.
Do we just let other people continue to write history books, or are each of us—from our own cultural perspective—are we responsible for telling our stories? Can we afford to just sit back and rely on the people writing the MacMillan textbooks to tell our history?
We can’t. MacMillan textbooks are made in Texas, so there you go. Arizona just blocked Mexican studies from their schools. How do you do that? Arizona was Mexico. A majority of the people there are Mexican. Obviously, there’s been a c*ckblock for our history. The fact that 20,000 Latin people fought in the American Civil war… and we had the first admiral in the United States Navy, David Farragut… Where is that? You don’t see any of that stuff.
Would you rather tell that story rather than have someone at a textbook publishing company try to shoehorn it into a history book when they don’t really get it? Do you feel like you’re opening the door for more Latin people to join that conversation with this show?
Absolutely. I’ve been doing it for four years and traveling around the country, and I can see the changes happening. I really feel like Latin people feel their responsibility to start searching out our contributions and giving them a place, and putting them out there. I’m doing a book with Abrams, A Latin History for People With Short Attention Spans, and I want to try to be as accurate as possible, and hopefully it can be a text book. You know lots of people use Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a text book. So I’m hoping if I’m accurate enough, and historically fact-proofed, I can do that.
What were some of the biggest surprises for you in this process that were huge emotional moments?
There were a lot. I guess when I found out how much we have contributed to the world civilization. When the conquests came here, we were almost 100,000,000 Native American people—we Latin people are mostly Native American—I guess where it’s hard for Americans to comprehend that Latin people are mostly Native American.
But when I found out that the conquistadors came and they destroyed 95% of the people living here, and destroyed their books and the codices; they were all burnt. That’s how you destroy a culture. And now, the fact that we bounced back and we are sort of re-conquesting the Americas, I feel very empowered by that.
Latin History for Morons officially opens November 15. Tony Taccone directs the production that was seen earlier this year in an acclaimed run at the Public Theater. For tickets visit LatinHistoryBroadway.com or Telecharge.com.
Watch Off-Broadway highlights below: