Behind the scenes with John Leguizamo
John Leguizamo has performed his solo play Ghetto Klown many times, in many venues and in one other language since its Broadway run in 2011. But his short stay at NJPAC’s intimate Victoria Theater will result in millions of viewers being able to enjoy the show.
People won’t be stacked ear to ear to the top tier or spill out of the theater’s doors to reach that head count during the four performances. The NJPAC appearances are being taped by HBO for future broadcast, an enterprise that echoes October’s week-long residency of BET’s Black Girls Rock! awards ceremony, telecast earlier this month. (HBO previously aired another of Leguizamo’s hit shows, Freak, an Emmy winner directed by Spike Lee.)
Last things first: Following his opening night performance, Leguizamo returned to the stage to meet with fans, who included students of NJPAC’s Arts Education programs and members and guests of the Advisory Council’s Latino subcommittee. More and more ticket holders lingered when word spread of the Q&A, also attended by Ghetto Klown director Fisher Stevens – a noted stage and screen actor himself – and original producer Arnold Engelman of WestBeth Entertainment.
Leguizamo, who wrote the semiautobiographical Ghetto Klown, as well as earlier successes like Mambo Mouth and Sexaholix … A Love Story, fielded questions and chatted with well-wishers afterward. The actor and comedic storyteller cited his influences as Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg and monologists Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian. Born in Bogatá, raised in Queens, he was gratified to present a Spanish-language version of Ghetto Klown recently in the city of his birth.
He and Stevens riffed on their working relationship, which began after they were slapped by Actors’ Equity for their frat-boy stunts during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because Leguizamo portrays multiple characters in Ghetto Klown – ranging from his ex-wife to his grandfather – Stevens said he will often address his stage notes to that particular character.
Leguizamo advised a student from Arts High School in Newark to battle stage fright by using this technique: “You’re not thinking about fear or criticism if you get lost in the character.” To aspiring playwrights, he suggested “write what turns you on … then you’ll have a unique voice.” And to a pair of fledgling comedians from the Bronx: “Don’t accept ‘no.’ … Start your own clubs and make it happen.” (Here Engelman mentioned that Ghetto Klown began in a 100-seat theater with a $10 ticket price.)
My, how it’s grown. The laugh-saturated and frequently poignant Ghetto Klown journeys through the decades of Leguizamo’s life and career, incorporating photos and film clips of his Hollywood escapades. The actor’s impressions break outside the family circle, with wicked portrayals of former co-stars Al Pacino (Carlito’s Way), Steven Seagal (Executive Decision) and Patrick Swayze (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar).
Maybe he didn’t become “the Latino Al Pacino” that his first drama teacher predicted, but he holds bragging rights as one of theatrical comedy’s most beloved character chameleons.
Nov. 15, 2013