People Who Make NY Special

Professor Leguizamo

Pay attention! Your (hysterical) lesson on Latin history with actor-writer-producer John Leguizamo is in session.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Don’t be offended by the title of theatrical chameleon John Leguizamo’s latest show, Latin History for Morons. He admits to being a moron on the topic, too, before he started research for the one-man show. Now, though, he is a veritable professor, breaking down 3,000 years of history into one 90-minute show with his quick and rhythmic style. That style has awed and amused audiences for decades in the creation of unforgettable characters like Loco Louie in Mambo Mouth and Sanny, Leguizamo’s “Latin, gay, and deaf” uncle, in Freak. Leguizamo’s versatility is what makes him the perfect fit for roles including Tybalt in Baz Luhrmann’s modern retelling of Romeo + Juliet, drag princess Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and Sid the Sloth in Ice Age. A favorite among New Yorkers, he can still walk through the Bronx’s Little Italy without too much fanfare despite success in theater, film, and television.

The Latin everyman chatted with us about the show, his favorite part of the Met, and his go-to food joints in New York City.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

What Should We Do: How much research did you have to do for this show?
John Leguizamo: A lot, but it was exciting. What’s interesting is that as I did the research, I started to realize which authors had actually done their research and who just kind of skimmed by, because now I knew the sources. They’re all the same sources basically. I saw how Howard Zinn [historian, activist, and author of A People’s History of the United States] actually did incredible amounts of research, and then you see other people like [Jared Diamond, author of] Guns, Germs, and Steel, and you go, huh? I mean, the overview in that book is really cool, but the research wasn’t really as in-depth as Howard Zinn’s. So that’s when you start to learn, you know, who did the deep reading of the work of Friar Sahagún [one of the first missionary priests in Mexico and author of General History of the Things of New Spain] and all the Franciscan friars. There were a ton of missionary friars who really documented the cultures of the Aztecs and the Incas and the Mayans that were left.

WSWD: What made you want to get into this?
JL: I’ve always wanted to know about Latin history. I mean, I just never knew anything, you know? I grew up in the States, so there was not much ever taught [about Latin history] in school except the Alamo, I guess, and Columbus. And maybe you learned about the conquistadores, but you didn’t really learn about the empires, the Aztec Empire and how advanced they were and the beauty of their cities.

WSWD: It’s true, we learned about the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, but not Latin ancient civilizations. What did you find fascinating about the Aztecs?
JL: You know, they bathed twice a day. They were the cleanest people in the world, the Aztecs. They had fresh running water from the aqueducts. There were two aqueducts that were two miles long each and brought tons of fresh water. And they had palaces—100-room palaces!—and temples and 45 public buildings. They were powerful. And then I read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I said, “Wait a minute, you’re saying that we lost [to colonists] because European technology was more advanced and your societies were more advanced?” That can’t be the case, because Cortés attacked Tenochtitlan the first time and didn’t get through. He couldn’t. So if his technology was so advanced and his strategy was so great, why didn’t he get through the first time? He succeeded later because of germs. Once the plague hit the Aztecs, that was it. Smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever. You can’t survive that.

WSWD: No matter how many baths you take.
JL: Exactly. You could live in the tub and it’s still not gonna keep a plague away.

WSWD: So how do you share that history with your audience in a way that doesn’t feel like a lesson?
JL: Well, that’s a challenge because they want a little bit of a lesson. They want to be challenged intellectually somewhat. But not too much, you know? It’s always a careful balancing act that I do between personal stories and history. But I don’t want the show to thin out. The purpose of it was the history.

WSWD: Did you learn anything about the Latin history of New York, specifically?
JL: Yeah, but I didn’t use it in the story. There was Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, for one, a Puerto Rican man at the turn of the century who created the first library of black and Latin studies here. He was a dark-skinned man who was a huge person in New York society, so that’s a big deal. But I didn’t put that in the show. There was so much to cover.   

WSWD: Has the show changed at all in response to the current political climate?
JL: No, but there’s more immediacy to it now. Some of the bits that came across more jokey before now don’t come across as so jokey. Now they have a poignancy and a barbed aspect to them, you know?

WSWD: Do you do impersonations in this show?
JL: Yeah, I try to do my best Andrew Jackson and my best Alexis de Tocqueville.

WSWD: You’ve impersonated a lot of different types of characters in your career. Do you ever worry about offending people?
JL: No, I never try to offend people. That’s not my kind of humor. I don’t get off on offending people. I always make sure that whatever character I’m portraying has integrity and is a dignified human being, because that’s the way I see the world, you know? I don’t see it in a disparaging “I’m more and you’re less” kind of way.

WSWD: And a lot of the characters you do are New Yorkers.
JL: Usually, yeah. Because that’s where I grew up. That’s where I still live. New Yorkers are the people I know the most. And I love the New York sound…I just love people’s accents here.

WSWD: You don’t have any accent and you’re a lifelong New Yorker.
JL: Acting classes beat it out of me!

WSWD: Do people approach you on the streets here? What do they recognize you from?
JL: Well, it depends what they’re into. Like, if they’re into
To Wong Foo, they scream, “Chi-Chi!” If they’re into Carlito’s Way, then they call out for Benny Blanco. The foodies know me from Chef, and the romantics know me as Tybalt from Romeo + Juliet. The character they recognize me as tells me more about them than it does about anything else.

WSWD: What are your favorite things to do in New York City?
JL: I love my ethnic foods, especially the mom-and-pop places. Uptown in the Bronx, I can get Ethiopian, Senegalese, and Guyanan food. I love that kind of stuff. Meskerem is one of my favorite spots for Ethiopian in Manhattan. And of course I love Arthur Avenue [in the Bronx] with the old-school Italian joints. I mean, those are the fun things, the little nooks and crannies of tightly knit people of that community. And then, you know, I do love my Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m not gonna lie. My imagination just goes nuts there.

WSWD: What do you like to see there?
JL: Well, now, obviously, the Mesoamerican art. It was always intriguing to me before, but now that I’m doing the show, it’s incredible to see.

WSWD: Any spots where you like to eat before or after your shows?
JL: I love Indochine. And I love The Library at the Public. The food there is amazing and the drinks are beautiful. After my shows, they have my drink ready for me. It’s called the Boulevardier [with Elijah Craig bourbon, Cappelletti, and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino]. I can barely say it, but it’s good!

Latin History for Morons
October 19, 2017 through February 4, 2018
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue)
Tickets start at $55