New one-man show reexamines Latinos’ role in history
John Leguizamo’s theatrical career has been driven by a series of one-man shows that have served as a therapy session with his audiences due to his drawing from his personal life for material. It’s no difference with his latest project, Latin History for Morons, which is being performed at Manhattan’s Public Theater. The seed was planted at a time when his now 16-year-old son was being bullied at school about being Hispanic and began working on a social studies project that had him put the spotlight on a historical hero. Leguizamo, a self-professed ghetto geek with a longtime love of history, suggested using someone of Latino heritage. Having immersed himself in research for the past decade or so for kicks, the Colombian native was well aware of the short shrift Latinos have gotten over time in terms of overall historical contributions. Thus, a one-man show was born.
“I started doing it at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the Playwright’s Lab, because I’d done Ghetto Klown there and I really enjoyed working with Tony Taccone as the artistic director,” Leguizamo recalled. “He asked what I had and I had this little piece that I had written a couple of notes on. It was sort of Latin history being told to my son because of his issues that he was having at school. I did 20 minutes of it and the audience gave a lot of great feedback and I saw the viability of it. I thought they could dig this as a lesson from my son and myself on Latin history and our contributions to this country.”
Leguizamo’s current show was four years in the making and involved him workshopping and tweaking the show at Berkeley and the La Jolla Playhouse before coming to the Public Theater. Given the current climate in the country and the fact that the Census Bureau is predicting that Hispanics are projected to make up 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, Leguizamo feels, “[This is a time where people need to be educated] across the board.” And while his academic discoveries gave him plenty of fodder to draw from, the challenge was maintaining a balance between the show being informative and entertaining.
“The tricky part, man, is the weaving of the history with the personal life and how to maximize humor out of that. It’s hard to make history funny. You have to know what you’re talking about so people can laugh,” he explained. “This one-man show has lots of information and weighing it sometimes, I erred too much on too much information or too little. I went back and forth and now I think I’m at a place where I’m happy with the amount of information. I’m still work-shopping it. I cut out a lot of funny bits this last week, but now I have to come up with new bits for the material that stayed.”
Winston Churchill was famously quoted as saying that, “History is written by the victors,” and it’s a realization that Leguizamo had time and time again, particularly when it came down to the sacrifices Latinos have made in times of war. It all wound up being quite an eye-opening experience for him, adding to how relevant Latin History for Morons winds up being.
“[I was shocked to] read and find out that 10,000 unknown Latino patriots fought in the Revolutionary War and 20,000 fought in the Civil War,” Leguizamo said. “You see all these people that are decorated—the first admiral in the Civil War was a Latin guy. We’ve sacrificed more than any other ethnic group or minority for this country. It’s bizarre. More than 400,000 Latin people fought in World War II and most of them were Puerto Rican and Mexican-Americans—huge numbers. You then ask why we’re constantly getting dissed and why aren’t we getting constantly celebrated?”
John Leguizamo is currently appearing in Latin History for Morons through April 28 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Visit www.publictheater.org or call 212-539-8605 for more information.