After his 1991 show Mambo Mouth launched John Leguizamo’s career as a malleable comedian, his latest play, Latin History for Morons (at New York’s Public Theater through April 23), has loftier goals: to redefine America’s past as most know it. The 52-year-old explains how music fits into his history lesson.
Billboard: What brought you to create this piece in this way?
Leguizamo: In theater, you can be free. That’s how Lin-Manuel Miranda got to do the most revolutionary piece of theater with Hamilton: color-blind casting in roles in which they would never cast Latinos if it were a film or TV show. It just goes to show that Hollywood and cable are way behind.
Is listening to music a big part of your writing process?
Absolutely. Chopin or Billy Eckstine or Miles Davis — that stuff helps me, more when I’ve already written and I need a little energy to keep editing.
What allows Latin music to stay so cross-generational?
I think it’s inherited memory. You heard your abuelitos play Tito Rodríguez and Sonora Matancera and it spoke to you then, and it still speaks to you. I hear tango and the power of that old-school merengue, bachata and vallenatos.
What does being Latino at this point in history mean to you?
We need to stand up and become a united front against a common enemy. It’s important for us to not be divided.