John Leguizamo doesn’t do stereotypes. If you’ve seen any of his pioneering, autobiographical solo shows, from “Mambo Mouth” and “Freak” to “Sexaholix” and “Ghetto Klown,” you know that the actor, comedian, and writer is a master of confessional self-deprecation and kinetic character creation. Yes, he exaggerates and lampoons. But instead of simply trading in ethnic cliches, he uses his talent for impersonation, mimicry, and quick-sketch portraiture to create vivid, colorful characters that leap off the stage and become lodged in your brain.
In “Spic-o-Rama” (1992), he fashioned the indelible Miggy, an overexcited, lisping 9-year-old with spectacles and braces, whose hands flopped every which way as he raged against an ethnic slur that was aimed at him. In the same show, he brought to life a bleach-blonde wannabe thespian named Raffi who posed flamboyantly in front of a mirror in a silk bathrobe and briefs while affecting a British accent and claiming to be the love-child of Laurence Olivier. In “Freak” (1998), Leguizamo unfurled an impression of his devoutly religious grandmother dousing him with a tumbler-full of Jack Daniel’s — after blessing it like holy water — when she becomes convinced the manic little kid is possessed by Satan.
"These are prototypes in my shows, not stereotypes," Leguizamo says, over the phone from Los Angeles. "I think the press sometimes reduces them to that, but that's not really what they are."
Nearly three decades after he first burst onto the theatrical scene in 1990 with his Obie-winning “Mambo Mouth,” Leguizamo is still busy putting his own distinct spin on familiar types, imbuing each character with unique qualities and bone-deep affection. His latest one-man tour de force, “Latin History For Morons,” arrives at the Emerson Colonial Theatre for two performances on Nov. 7-8. After developing the show for several years, it eventually ran at the Public Theater and then on Broadway, where it won a special Tony Award in 2018 (and captured a best play nomination).
In “Latin History,” Leguizamo slips into the skins of his wife, son, daughter, mother, father, and therapist and conjures up historical and cultural figures including French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, President Andrew Jackson, and physicist Stephen Hawking, rendering them with three-dimensional, if hilarious, specificity. He embodies Aztec emperor Montezuma as flamboyant, lisping effete, facing off against his butch portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortés.
“There’s a very thin line between stereotype and archetype,” says the show’s director, Tony Taccone. “A stereotype means you’ve done a big, broad stroke that doesn’t capture the nuances and complexities of a person or an idea. An archetype taps into the collective unconscious of human history. The gifted comic performer will recognize a stereotypical activity, and then find a specific insight into that archetype to help create a character.”’
As a performer, Leguizamo has always been a profane, hyperkinetic whirlwind, flipping from one ribald character to the next, zig-zagging across the stage, or breaking out into the merengue or mambo. In “Sexaholix” (2001), a character jokes of a young Leguizamo, “Someone needs to introduce this boy to decaf.”
“The power of the imagination is such an incredible tool. When I can convince an audience to stop seeing John Leguizamo and start seeing the characters I’m creating, I feel so alive,” he says.
Leguizamo feels he sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for helping to pioneer the confessional one-man show. “Nobody was really doing this. I made it a play, and I made it theater, and I made it self-exposure a thing,” he says. “I also brought a drama and a darkness to it that I felt was missing, because American humor was very glib and superficial at the time. That comes from my Latin culture, where our humor is a lot more dramatic.”
The inspiration for “Latin History” can be traced to one of Leguizamo’s most painful moments as a father. When his son Lucas was in middle school, he started getting picked on by a kid who called him the ethnic slur “beaner” and derisively mocked his dad’s celebrity status. When he fought back, his classmates treated him like a pariah.
“He was being bullied. At first, I thought maybe I wanted to punch the hell out of the other kid. But when I thought about it, I was like, no, you know, I need to be better than my own father and the community I came from,” says Leguizamo, who was born in Bogota, Colombia, and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. “I wanted to give my son facts and data and stories about Latin heroes and their contributions. So I started looking at great history textbooks to see how I could weaponize this information.”
At first, he didn’t find much of anything. Latin people were mostly invisible in these books. But he began to dig deeper after reading Howard Zinn’s groundbreaking “The People’s History of the United States,” which details the untold histories of the nation’s marginalized groups. That led him to Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America” and Charles C. Mann’s “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” among other works, and he discovered the rich and diverse history of Latin people. Not only did he want to share the information to his son, he wanted to shout what he learned from the rooftops.
“I want people to walk out knowing that being Latin is a superpower,” Leguizamo says. “We’ve taken the worst beating in history of any ethnic group or race, with the genocides and the exploitation and the violence from the conquests. But we’re still here and we’re still thriving."
Looking like a hipster college professor in jacket, vest, and tie, Leguizamo employs a blackboard, chalk, and pointer in a show that’s set up as a mock classroom lecture, with a deeply personal family story woven throughout. “Before I confront others," he says in the show, “I’ve got to learn how to confront myself.” He grapples with what he calls “an untreated, chronic case of ghetto rage."
That candor isn’t surprising for an artist who’s never been afraid to sling Molotov cocktail provocations, not to mention ribald jokes, at his audience. Indeed, Leguizamo considers himself an artist, not an entertainer, first and foremost. “I feel like the world needs both, but an artist is political and takes a stand and takes risks. That’s who I am,” he says.
Indeed, Leguizamo is the kind of magnetic performer the audience feels like they know personally. That charisma is also in abundance in his memorable screen roles, including short-fused gangster Benny Blanco in “Carlito’s Way” (1993), hot-headed Tybalt in “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), impish Toulouse-Lautrec in “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), and the voice of the garrulous, accident-prone sloth, Sid, in the “Ice Age” films. Then there was his Emmy-nominated turn this year as a heartbroken father grappling with injustice in Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed miniseries “When They See Us.”
Despite his screen success, though, there’s nothing like the artistic freedom of writing his own material and not having to censor himself. Performing solo shows, Leguizamo says, is "the most raw that I can be in front of an audience, without having executives or producers telling me how to modify my statements, because they’re afraid of offending the network or their advertisers or boards. It’s the most free and naked an artist can be in front of an audience.”
LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS
At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Nov. 7-8. Tickets start at $49.50, 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com