When John Leguizamo’s son, Lucas, was bullied about seven years ago about his Latino heritage, the actor-comic talked to him about his school’s curriculum.
“I discovered that my son’s history text books lacked the contributions of Latin people,” Leguizamo tells The News & Observer in a phone interview from his New York apartment.
“There was no mention of Gen. David Farragut, who fought during the Civil War,” Leguizamo said. “Farragut was Spanish and a huge figure in the U.S. military. I found it astounding that most people don’t know about him and other important Latino figures in American history. But yes, this started as something for my son. I wanted him to have facts about Latin culture so he could defend himself.”
That experience prompted Leguizamo, now 54, to write “Latin History for Morons,” his acclaimed one-man show that’s as amusing as it is informative as it looks back at 3,000 years of Latin-American history
“It was about time someone came up with a production like this,” Leguizamo says. “It wasn’t something in which it was like I was saying, ‘I can’t believe that you don’t know about Latin history in this country.’ I was a moron myself! I didn’t know enough about Latin history and I’m a Latino! The history is significant. Writing this show has been a labor of love.”
The show, which ran on Broadway for five months in 2017, was nominated in 2018 for a Tony Award for Best Play and received the Special Tony Award. It premiered on Netflix in November. Leguizamo will kick off a national tour of “Latin History for Morons” July 9 at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
The entire show is performed in a classroom setting with Leguizamo as the audience’s professor.
“I used a chalkboard because I wanted to instruct people in the theater,” Leguizamo explains. “I want to teach the audience. There is an important lesson here that I didn’t learn when I was going to school. The teachers didn’t teach me any of this.”
Leguizamo’s extensive research was an eye-opener for the Colombia native, who grew up in the New York borough of Queens.
“I discovered all of these amazing things that Latinos did to help build America,” Leguizamo said. “It’s as if there has been an effort to keep us out of the history books. We’ve been there right at the beginning of America. People need to know how significant Latinos are to the United States of America.”
The show focuses on immigration in historical terms. Leguizamo avoids the current political events in the production. But off stage, he can’t help but voice his opinions on recent events at the U.S. border.
“What has happened at the Mexican border is a human tragedy,” Leguizamo says. “To separate parents from their children is a cold-hearted, inhumane thing to do. I can’t believe the separation of parents from their children happened in our country.”
He said Americans “don’t know or fail to recognize” that immigrants contribute about $12 billion in taxes every year.
“Many Latino immigrants do the jobs Americans don’t want to do,” he said. “People in this country need to be set straight.”
When Leguizamo was writing his show, he didn’t think about in a cinematic form. It was obvious to him that theater was the perfect venue for “Latin History for Morons.”
“The studio heads would not get this,” Leguizamo says. “To quote Tyler Perry, ‘Why be part of a table that won’t seat you?’”
After starting as a stand-up comic during the early ‘80s and picking up small roles in such films as 1989’s “Casualties of War” and 1990’s “Die Hard 2,” Leguizamo made his first big splash in theater.
In 1993, Leguizamo’s “Spic-O-Rama,” which poked at the stereotyping of Latinos in the United States, won a Drama Desk Award.
“It’s hard to believe that ‘Spic-O-Rama’ debuted more than a quarter-century ago,” Leguizamo says. “That production opened up so many doors for me.”
Leguizamo has appeared in over 75 films, including 2002’s “Collateral Damage” and 2014’s “John Wick.”
“Working with Arnold (Schwarzenegger in “Collateral Damage”) was one of the highlights of my career since Arnold is one of the funniest dudes I’ve ever hung out with,” Leguizamo says. “I had fun with Keanu Reeves in ‘John Wick.’ He’s one of the most committed dudes in Hollywood.”
Leguizamo dives deep into his projects, and “Latin History” was well worth the effort, he said. He even has a “required reading list” to complement the production.
“I immerse myself in my work,” he said. “I really did so with (‘The Latin History for Morons.’). I had a lot of work to do. It was well worth it. I learned a lot and I really believe the people who come out and see this show learn a lot as well. I want Latin people to leave the theater empowered and for everyone else to have an appreciation for what Latin people have done for this country.”
What: “Latin History for Morons” by John Leguizamo
When: 7:30 p.m. July 9
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Tickets: Starting at $39.50
Info: 919-680-2787 or dpacnc.com or latinhistorybroadway.com