John Leguizamo Rewrites History with New Solo Show

John Leguizamo in rehearsal for 'Latin History for Morons.' Photographed at New 42nd Street Studios  (Photo: Joan Marcus/BerkeleyRep)

As a performer and playwright, John Leguizamo builds characters defined by companionship. In close to 50 film roles, the Colombian-born, Queens, New York-raised actor has favored scene-stealers who are also valued members of a group, like self-described drag princess Chi-Chi Rodriguez in Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, and Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age animated feature franchise.

On stage, the actor’s solo shows -- hilarious and gripping pieces like Mambo Mouth and Spic-o-Rama -- are ensembles of one, where Leguizamo might play all the members of a dysfunctional family or himself and his own father within seconds of each other. “Those characters are all up there with me,” Leguizamo said over the phone from New York. “With my body, an inflection, an accent, I can cut between characters faster than a movie can.

The performer is currently in final rehearsals for his new theatrical piece, John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons. The solo show -- his sixth to date -- begins its world premiere run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Friday, Jul. 1. Directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, it’s a 90-minute blitz through the much-overlooked contributions of Latinos to U.S. history.

Reclaiming the past through a Latino lens

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“Look at our history; we were present,” Leguizamo said. “If 2,000 Latinos fought in the Civil War, how come that never came up in school? If 500,000 of us fought in World War II, how come not one World War II movie has a Latin character?” In the same vein as Howard Zinn’s seminal book A People’s History of the United States, Leguizamo’s show is focused on telling a different version of the past -- what the artist calls, “exposing an act of purposeful disinclusion.”

Theater of self-education

The idea for the show came to Leguizamo a few years ago when he misinformed his teenaged son, who was working on a school paper at the time, that Quechuan was the name of a Colombian Indian tribe. It’s actually an indigenous language. “I’m one of the morons I’m talking about,” Leguizamo said. “The piece spirals outward from me educating my son, me educating myself, me educating the audience.”

Of all of Leguizamo’s work to date, Latin History has the most direct connection to Freak. That solo show, conceived in 1998, centered on what the actor learned from his father and what he chose to leave behind. His new production serves as an insistent endorsement of self-education. “It’s the journey of a man -- of being a son to being a father,” Leguizamo said.

Leguizamo honed his skills in the basement theater spaces of 1980s Lower Manhattan. The actor returned to the underground scene for the first time in his long career only recently, when he tried out early versions of Latin History in similarly cramped comedy clubs. “I really wanted to be tested by fire,” Leguizamo said. “The comedy club audience has no patience. I didn’t want to get past the point where if I performed it in high school, a high school kid would be bored.”

Leguizamo can be seen this July in the film The Infiltrator starring Bryan Cranston and in Season Two of the Netflix series Bloodline. And yet creatively, Leguizamo said he will always return to the theater. For one thing, it’s where he began as an artist. “I wanted to go dark and personal, use costumes and dance,” he said, describing how he strived to differentiate himself from the artists he looked up to early in his career, like Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin. “Theater allowed you to do that. The smallness of the space means there weren’t as many controls or corporate hands in the mix.”

Leguizamo said the stage is still the place where creative revolutions take hold. “Theaters one of the great innovators of media,” Leguizamo said. “Look at Hamilton, color-blind casting. It took theater to do that.”

John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons runs through Sunday, Aug. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley. Find out more here