John Leguizamo takes us back to school in ‘Latin History for Morons’
“The stage is the place that has allowed me to be the most me, the most true to myself without redaction, without censorship. I can just be me and I’m so grateful for that,” the actor-playwright says.
Anyone who has seen John Leguizamo’s autobiographical one-man shows knows that his mind and his mouth go a mile a minute. Each of these pioneering and very funny pieces — “Mambo Mouth,” “Spic-O-Rama,” “Freak,” “Sexaholix” and “Ghetto Klown” — dug into Leguizamo’s life as the son of a Colombian immigrants and his observations of the people and the world around him.
In his most recent solo show, Leguizamo dives into history — more specifically the Latin history missing from school textbooks. “Latin History for Morons” is a Leguizamo-fueled riff begun as the antidote to the bullying his then 12-year-old son (he’s now a student at Vassar College) experienced in middle school.
‘Latin History for Morons’
When: Oct. 29-Nov. 3
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
“I wanted to arm him with facts and information about Latin contributions and Latin heroes,” Leguizamo recalls. After a look through his son’s history textbook, he says he found “not one name, not one mention, not one chapter that I could use, and I was outraged.”
In the 90-minute “Latin History for Morons,” Leguizamo plays the role of professor as he wends his way through 3,000 years of history from Aztec and Incan culture to overlooked contributions of Latin patriots in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and beyond. It’s a satirical history lesson embedded with his trademark brand of humor; he’s convinced that’s the only way to get this sort of message through to people.
“Even my people won’t listen to history unless it’s funny and visual. It’s sort of like kombucha; it has to be perfectly brewed,” he says with a laugh.
As in his past shows, Leguizamo impersonates a variety of characters, ranging from Andrew Jackson and Alexis de Tocqueville to members of his family, the school principal, the bully and more.
The concept of the show began with a lot of research, a lot of reading books that led him to other books. Among them were Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” Charles Mann’s “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” and his favorite, Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America,” in which the author analyzes the history of the Americas as a whole.
“It’s the shortest of them all, but as Isabel Allende says, you have to read each chapter at least five times, and she is not overstating that,” Leguizamo says.
Along the way, he discovered unsung heroes and unrecognized patriots and all the things they’ve done to build America and the world. It was a mind-blowing, life-changing lesson, says Leguizamo, who was born in Bogota and raised in New York City where he still lives.
“It made me feel like being Latin was a superpower,” he says. “We’ve survived so much abuse, so much violence, so much genocide and exploitation and yet continued to give so much to the world.
“I’ll never be the same after this,” he adds with conviction. “I’ll never feel less than. I’ll never be made to feel like a second-class citizen as long as I live. They can’t take away my knowledge.”
Leguizamo’s first one-man show, 1990’s “Mambo Mouth,” was created in response to the limited options he experienced when he tried to break into film and was only getting cast as drug dealers, killers and servants. He says he saw “no real Latin representation anywhere.”
“I thought, wait a minute, I see all these amazing people in my life every day around the city being funny, being political. It was so deep and rich but they were nowhere to be seen on stage or in film. So I started creating what I wanted to see.”
Since those days, he also has forged a long and successful film and TV career, most recently in Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” in which he plays Raymond Santana Sr., the father of one of the four young men falsely accused of rape in the Central Park Five case.
“I would have paid to be in it,” he says. “I think it’s one of the most important pieces of work in a long time to show that art can be transformative and change things.”
Leguizamo’s newest ventures include a co-starring role with John Cena and Keegan-Michael Key in the film “Playing With Fire,” opening Nov. 8, and he’s also part of the writing team behind the irreverent musical comedy “Kiss My Aztec,” which recently finished California runs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse and is headed to New York’s Public Theatre and hopefully to Broadway.
“It’s a super funny history of the Aztecs,” he says. “It’s like ‘The Book of Mormon’ meets ‘Avenue Q’ meets ‘In the Heights’.”
What keeps coming back to live theater as a writer and performer?
“The stage is the place that has allowed me to be the most me, the most true to myself without redaction, without censorship. I can just be me and I’m so grateful for that.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.