John Leguizamo's One-man Show
The actor returns to La Jolla Playhouse with Latin History for Dummies
John Leguizamo | Photo by Jeffrey Weiser
John Leguizamo: Latin History for Dummies
John Leguizamo has played French artist Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge!, a gangster in Carlito’s Way, and a sloth in the Ice Age films. This month, the Emmy winner takes on the role of history professor in his one-man show, John Leguizamo: Latin History for Dummies, part of the La Jolla Playhouse’s Page To Stage new play development program. The actor returns to the Playhouse following the success of his 2010 show, Ghetto Klown, which went on to Broadway acclaim. In Latin History, he delivers his signature razor-sharp comedic take on often-overlooked Latin culture, from the Aztec and Incan empires to World War II. We spoke with Leguizamo about acting solo, researching the past, and telling jokes for free.
How do you keep up the performance energy when there’s just one person on stage?
I have to get very immersed in the emotions and circumstances of the play, and if I can lose myself in that and in the characters, then I don’t feel alone on stage. I feel that I am in the world that I created. It’s kind of like being a rational crazy person all at once. The more I can hallucinate and really see other people and the imaginary places I’m creating, the less I feel like I’m acting and I’m just responding.
What’s the inspiration behind Latin History for Dummies?
My favorite teacher was my college history teacher. He was nuts and would do characters and tell us inappropriate bits of history, and it was so sensational. It really got me hooked. So I felt I had to channel him for Latin History for Dummies. It’s about little-known heroes and sidebars of history that should have taken center stage, but because they were Latin, they were diminished in importance. I mean, we were always here. We discovered ourselves, for crying out loud! We were the Spanish and we were the Native Americans. That’s the dichotomy of the Latin experience, and then you throw in the African element and it’s a tripartite experience. The only way to get anyone to partake in this valuable information was through a comedy piece with analogous moments in my life. I learned this all through trial and error as I toured across America.
How did you research the show, going all the way back to the Aztecs? How long did it take to write?
It took me two years to write, and I’m still writing and fine-tuning, but almost 15 years to research—tomes, encyclopedic perusing, Googling, talking to Latin history professors. There is a lot of information on our contributions. The Spanish priests were the very first ethnographers in history, so they annotated the Aztecs, Incas, and other tribes to a dizzying degree of detail. Yet you never hear it or see it. We were a huge part of the American Revolution. We had generals and women in it. Cuban women in the South sold all their jewelry and belongings to feed the rebels. Ten thousand of us fought in the Civil War. That’s a crazy huge number in the 1800s, and yet you never hear about one Latin person participating—as if someone went in with an eraser and rubbed us out of history. We fought in all of the American wars—the War of 1812, World War I, and 500,000 of us fought in World War II. The movie From Here to Eternity is based on a Mexican guy, but you would never know it ’cause he was played by a white guy.
Who do you hope will come to the show and what do you hope will come out of it?
I want Latin people to walk away with a sense of empowerment and entitlement. I grew up feeling so unwanted, disempowered, and with really low self-esteem because of the lack of role models and heroes of Latin origin in history and literature. I want Americans to give us the respect and pay long-overdue homage to our huge and important contribution to the making of this great nation.
Can you share one anecdote or joke you use in the show?
Nah! You gotta pay for it. Even sex workers don’t give it up just ’cause you ask. Show me the money.