Telling tales

Actor-dramatist John Leguizamo encourages NJPAC students to find their voice in their stories.


Dressed in a canary-yellow jersey, sneakers and a Mets cap – and nearly passing for one of NJPAC’s summer students – actor and playwright John Leguizamo slipped into the Horizon Black Box Theater to impart a few words to the young artists there. Words of encouragement, like “believe,” “craft” and “confidence.”


Then there were the words that the Colombian native joked that he absorbed while growing up on the streets of his Jackson Heights neighborhood, like “bowf” (both) and “maff” (math), mispronunciations he erased by studying elocution and acting.


“I was so ghetto-y that I couldn’t afford a ‘th’,” he snarked to a delighted audience of nearly a hundred students and their teachers. 


A go-to voice artist today (the Ice Age series), the Emmy-winning monologist was in residence June 28-30 for a Netflix taping of his Broadway hit, Latin History for Morons, in the Victoria Theater. Three weeks previously, the solo show was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play; it lost to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but Leguizamo didn’t leave empty-pocketed that night, since he was the recipient of a special achievement Tony.



Interviewed by Betsy True of NJPAC’s Arts Education Department, Leguizamo spoke about the power of storytelling to teens studying hip hop, devised theater, dance, musical theater, and jazz. He explained that he draws largely upon a traumatic experience to build his one-man, multi-character plays, such as the death of his grandfather (Sexaholix … A Love Story); the tribulations of being the son of immigrants (Freak); or a bullying incident (Latin History for Morons). Poignancy and outright hilarity exist side-by-side in his semi-autobiographical sketches, which came into focus in 1990 with off-Broadway’s Mambo Mouth, a stand-up piece knitted with seven caricatures.


Leguizamo remembered when he announced his intention to become an actor, his father retorted, “We didn’t come to this country for it to be worse for us.” Fortunately undeterred, the artist urged students to study with the best teachers and to seek audiences by performing in parks, small spaces (one of his pieces was done in a theater hallway “for a couple of minutes at 1am”), or even small screens (Instagram).


Responding to questions, Leguizamo touched on the contrasts between working in theater – “you have one shot every night, but a lot of nights” – and film (among credits: Carlito’s Way, Super Mario Bros. and Romeo + Juliet). Describing his younger self as painfully shy, he advised students to find their comfort zones by “getting lost in the role” and to accept that the theater is “a safe place to fail.”


This was the second time Leguizamo met with NJPAC’s Arts Education students. Five years ago, he and the team behind his play Ghetto Klown held a Q&A between tapings for HBO, also in the Victoria Theater.


July 2, 2018