The last time San Diego saw John Leguizamo in the flesh, he was playing a professor at La Jolla Playhouse in his still-touring, now Tony Award–nominated one-man show, Latin History for Morons—a suitably irreverent career evolution for the man who once played Luigi in Super Mario Bros. and voiced Sid the sloth in five Ice Age movies.
This month, the Playhouse raises its curtain for Leguizamo’s much-anticipated musical comedy, Kiss My Aztec. The full-throttle farce is his latest love letter to Latinx history, and a potty-mouth retelling of Spain’s invasion of Mesoamerica. Following a raved-about world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Leguizamo talks about staying behind the scenes as playwright for this project and harnessing his gift of comedy to teach history.
Kiss My Aztec’s world premiere is catching buzz. SF Weekly even called it the "anti-Hamilton." What do you make of that?
[Laughs] I’m not even sure what to make of that. Hamilton is a masterpiece. Ours is straight-up comedy farce to the maximum nth degree. It’s a big, broad, dirty, nasty, highbrow-lowbrow farce. You can’t throw a comedy musical up against Hamilton. We’ve gotta beat The Book of Mormon and Spamalot.
What’s the premise of this musical, and why write it now and bring it to the stage?
Well, it’s been long in the making. It’s hard to sell Latin stories to mainstream producers. I’m always pitching Latin movies to Hollywood. Executives say Latin people don’t want to see feel-good movies. That’s a battle I’ve faced my whole career. We know the audiences are out there. We know Latinx stories are viable and people are hungry for them. We have to convince the gatekeepers—or get past them and create our own situation, because we need feel-good stories. We need hope. Right now, more than ever, we need stories that make us proud, that unite us instead of divide us.
This play teaches you about where Latin people come from and how these people survived out of tenacity and goodwill. It’s all about making the world a better place by working together. It’s set at the end of the Aztec Empire and the beginning of Mexico, right after when people were enslaved and forced to be sex workers and gold miners. This is the first rebellion against the colonizers to free the slaves… there’s nothing funnier than colonial humor.
That’s some satire!
Hey, I want to go as lowbrow and highbrow as we can and force the audience to work. If you’re a highbrow person, I want you to tough out the lowbrow. If you’re a lowbrow person, I want you to hang with the highbrow.
I don’t want to put on a piece that’s pabulum. I don’t want people to sit there and feel like they know it. I want to challenge them.
How did you strike a balance of educating audiences while delivering them that blue humor?
I had to do mad research. My favorite came from reading 1491 by Charles C. Mann and 500 Nations. I was also trying to combine Elizabethan language and ghetto speak; that marriage was one of the things I really wanted to pioneer. I love all things ghetto; it’s where I come from. But it’s hard to push history, especially history no one is accustomed to in America. In comedy, laughter comes from recognition, and right now the recognition factor is low because Americans don’t know about Latin history. I’m trying to make you laugh about a thing you don’t know.
The other tricky part is the 1600s. How do you portray that—physically, in sets and costumes—in a farce? A farce is like a soufflé. You’ve got to keep it going or else it collapses right on you. The energy has to stay and the tone has to be consistent. It survives on energy, speed, and constant jokes. You can’t drop the ball.
What’s it like leaving it up to others to act out your words and lyrics?
It’s wild because you see the weaknesses and strengths in your writing right away. Our cast is so talented. They’re really quadruple threats, because they’ve got to dance, sing, act, and be funny. At Berkeley, I stayed the whole first week and went to every performance. I’m enjoying sitting back.
What’s one moment you especially want audiences to watch out for?
When Pilar, the viceroy’s daughter, is in her bedroom having a personal moment. You’re going to laugh your ass off.
September 3–October 13
La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla