From Bogotá to Broadway: That’s the story of John Leguizamo. From Colombia, he came with his family to the United States when he was 4, growing up in various neighborhoods in Queens. He began his entertainment career in the New York nightclub scene and found success in movies (everything from Benny Blanco in Carlito’s Way to Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet) and TV. Now, he’s on a national tour with his sixth solo effort, the Tony-nominated Latin History for Morons, which will come to the Merriam Theater on Friday and Saturday.
Leguizamo has created a kind of humor very much his own: profane, political, a teaching tool, making us laugh at ourselves while prompting thought about our thorough-going ignorance of others.
“That hypersexual stuff, with a lot of cursing? I started that whole genre of comedy,” he says, laughing, by phone from New York. “So there! I contributed to the devaluation of American comedy.”
And now he is a bona fide Broadway star, winning a special 2018 Tony award (along with Bruce Springsteen) for his one-man work on Broadway, prompting an impassioned acceptance speech that went viral (“Look, I’m an immigrant, and I’m not an animal.”). “I never thought I would do anything like doing a show on Broadway,” he says. But the success of Mambo Mouth, a 1991 off-Broadway show made into an HBO hit special, brought offers to do just that. His first Broadway one-man show was Freak in 1998. Leguizamo speaks to the Inquirer below about Morons, his career, how little we know about our own history, and how weird that is.
My son Lucas was in middle school and being bullied by kids who were saying ignorant [stuff] like, “Dirty Latinos! Your people never did anything!” So I started doing research about the real facts of our history, because I wanted to weaponize his information so people couldn’t come at him. But in the process, I was the one who was un-moron-ized and de-stupidified. The most important thing I learned was how little I knew, how little anyone knows, about our history. I found out there were more than 8,000 Latino troops in the Revolutionary War, more than 20,000 in the Civil War. That’s the kind of information I hope people walk away from this show with.
Americans are so confident about what they learned in high school, which a lot of the time isn’t much. It’s not totally the American people’s fault. A lot of it is the textbooks you’re given. They’re fairy tales. They don’t have the facts even though the facts are out there, they’re public knowledge, or at least they could be. The way the textbooks are written, it’s a power grab. If you included black people, Latin people, Indian people’s contributions, if you admitted it just one time, you could no longer keep them out of power. And the textbooks are made in Texas. No textbooks should be made in Texas.
For Latin History for Morons, I wanted to reach Generation Latinx, make it so good people would be desperate to read this history. So I went to the comedy clubs.
People go out of different expectations. In a comedy club, you can go nuts and go off and be funny, but you can’t really get emotional, you know? The crowd is there to get in a rhythm of set-ups-and-jokes with you. They don’t really care about stories — stories that last a whole show, I mean. In a theater, though, jokes are not enough. You better have a story, you better have a point. I loved the energy and immediacy of comedy clubs. You can see why it’s so addictive. But you get to a theater, people don’t let you slide, it’s gotta add up. The first, second, and third act has to have a big payoff at the end; it can’t be just set up and joke.
From Broadway, what’s dropped? My pants. For the section on the Incas, I’m in Speedos. It’s pretty vile. I also made some things a little more politicized. I got a little more courage to say the things I wanted to say, like with Columbus. Now I know how to surgically eviscerate that guy. When you learn about him, what he did, separating men and women in different camps, cutting their feet off if they tried to run away, burning them alive, it was horrible.
When I did Mambo Mouth and Spic-o-Rama, both of those got made into HBO specials, and that’s when I really started to see changes in the audience. Crowds in Chicago, New York, they really changed. It was a very exciting moment. The audience got to be 60 percent Latin. With Mambo Mouth, Latin people all of a sudden saw themselves reflected back in a way so they’re no longer “other” or “less than,” but instead the way they really are, and when I was saying things in Spanish, people would stomp their feet and yell. It became call and response. It was a very powerful experience.
I’m working really hard on making it a kids’ book, because that’s how it got started, you know, like an effort to make sure my son knew about his own history. But it’s hard, man, super-hard. Just cutting out the curse words makes the whole thing like three sentences long. I have a lot of changing to do.