I have been a fan of Colombian-American actor John Leguizamo’s work since I first saw his one-man show Mambo Mouth (that production, from many moons ago, is still my favorite—the one that really struck a chord). So it was a delight to read a review of Leguizamo’s work in the words of a Puerto Rican actor/playwright who represents a new generation of “young, gifted, and Latino” performers (“Cuz I’m young, gifted, and Latino. —John Leguizamo, Spic-o-Rama) Lin-Manuel Miranda. In Vanity Fair article, as the Spic-o-Rama actor-writer-producer returns to his Off Broadway roots with Latin History for Morons, Lin-Manuel Miranda recalls the door that Leguizamo opened for him:
I don’t remember which family member taped it off HBO for me: we didn’t have cable at the time. But I remember the scrawl on the side of the VHS tape in my handwriting: Spic-o-Rama. I remember popping in the cassette and seeing John Leguizamo leap across the stage in orange baggy jeans and braces, playing the dorky, nine-year-old Miggy. Then he was Crazy Willie, a Persian Gulf War vet with serious relationship issues. Then Raffi, a flamboyant would-be Elizabethan actor in Jackson Heights. It slowly dawned on me that Leguizamo was playing every member of his hilarious, dysfunctional family, on his own electric terms.
Indeed, Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times review, “John Leguizamo arrives on stage in ‘Spic-o-Rama’ like a hip-hop star, leaping and bouncing in the flash of strobe lights to thunderous music and the cheers of fans . . . . Mr. Leguizamo is a star, no question—he doesn’t need a strobe to burn bright—but he also announces himself from that moment as an actor of phenomenal range.”
Spic-o-Rama hit me (and a generation of future Latino writers) like a thunderbolt. As an erstwhile theater kid whose knowledge of it was strictly confined to traditional musicals such as Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof, witnessing a Latino actor write and star in his own show, reveling in the specificities of our culture with brilliant, razor-sharp wit and a uniquely hip-hop energy, exploded my every notion of what theater could be. More important, it exploded Leguizamo’s career: after his one-man shows, Hollywood would surely come calling.
For our Spanglish generation, Leguizamo was our Man on the Inside: we cheered for him as “Benny Blanco from the Bronx” in Carlito’s Way. We watched him hold his own against Leo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge! We watched him play fabulously against type in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Because we watched him play everybody in the beginning, we knew simply one role would never be enough.
It is only fitting, then, that Leguizamo comes back to the stage with a new show at the Public Theater—downtown, Off Broadway, where his story began. In Latin History for Morons, he endeavors to teach his son about unsung Latino heroes. For those of us who discovered, through his work, a link between the theater and our own specific stories, Leguizamo is the young, gifted, and Latino hero we’d been waiting for.
[Photograph above by Annie Leibovitz: John Leguizamo, in a dressing room at the Public Theater, in New York City. Vanity Fair.]