A cast of thousands just isn't enough to reflect the increasing diversity of American society. No, it takes one brilliant performer to do that. Last season it was Anna Deavere Smith multiplexing herself into the factions and personalities of New York's 1991 Crown Heights riots. This season it's John Leguizamo, who in Spic-O-Rama projects practically the entire Latino culture of New York City. Leguizamo's astonishing solo show, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago last January, has blown out the critics and sells out the off-Broadway Westside Theatre in Manhattan (where it runs through Jan. 24). With upcoming projects on stage, screen and tube, writer-performer Leguizamo seems set to become the first Hispanic theater artist to cross over into the mainstream with a very big splash.
Leguizamo, as compact and combustible as a stick of dynamite, mutates into the entire Gigante family. The pivotal mutant is Miggy, a manic 9-year-old with thick specs and beaver teeth, an appalled witness to his "freakazoid" folks. His brother Krazy Willie, a Desert Storm vet, waves a gun around the streets of Jackson Heights, claiming to be a hero. "So is a Blimpie," replies his cynical brother Raffi. Eager for whitehood, Raffi bleaches his hair with the "holy water by St. Clorox," transmutes Shakespeare with mock-English tones ("If you prick a Latino, doth he not bleed?") and nurses the fantasy that he's "the love-child of Laurence Olivier." Another brother, Javier, is the one Gigante with no comic dimension. Paralyzed in a wheelchair, he's a broken puppet who bitterly reproves his father: "I know you're ashamed of me but I'm more ashamed of you." Felix, the father, is a business success (he owns Laundromats) but a human disaster, wenching and boozing, a loser posing as a Mambo King. His wife, Gladyz, is a Latino Molly Bloom, red-mopped, streetsmart, man-wise.
Leguizamo turns the Gigantes into a one-man Long Day's Journey Into la Noche. He's not as tragic as O'Neill but he's funnier, and every laugh he gets is booby-trapped with pain and pathos. He's a remarkably mature writer and a born performer with the gift of instant intimacy with his audience. Some Hispanics have accused him of exploiting stereotypes. But you can hear the expressions of self-recognition in the audience. What he does is explode the stereotype into the shrapnel of laughter. Like Richard Pryor, Leguizamo makes comedy a fun-house mirror that magically reflects social reality. This happens in the early scene that gives the show its in-your-face title, when Miggy seizes the traditional ethnic insult and whirls it about like a verbal banner: "Yes, I'm a spic. Spic-torious! Indespic-able!" And he's off on his spic-o-rama, paced by a collaborative director, Peter Askin, in a set by Loy Arcenas that evokes a whole social spectrum: a gutted car, a graffiti'd pay phone, a cozy kid's bedroom.
Miggy, the kid, is clearly Leguizamo's surrogate, a put-on of himself as a funny, brainy nerd. "I've been writing since high school," says the wiry, intense 28-year-old. "I'd write these jokes, guys would steal them, and I'd cross them off my friendship list." Leguizamo, who came to New York from Colombia with his family when he was 4, now speaks with just a trace of accent. It was stronger when he tried to get into Juilliard to study theater. He did a speech from "Macbeth," was turned down and told he had too much of a street accent. "That's where Raffi comes from, the would, be Anglo with the phony British accent," he says delightedly. "I finally gave Juilliard the guy they wanted."
One Juilliard judge, John Stix, phoned Leguizamo after the audition to tell him he had a great raw talent and not to give up. For a time he had given up. "I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken for two years. Then I thought, I don't want to be cooking the colonel's chicken the rest of my life, keeping the secret ingredients secret." He moved in with his father (his parents had divorced). "I was following that father hunger," he says. After studying drama at New York University for two years, he found other father figures-the late producer Joseph Papp, who gave him the role of Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and tutored him in Shakespeare, and acting teacher Wynn Handman, who produced his first one-man show, "Mambo Mouth," in 1990 at the American Place Theatre, where it ran for six months.
Now "Spic-O-Rama" has made Leguizamo as hot as a jalapeno pepper. He has offers to do his own TV show. He stars with Bob Hoskins in a forthcoming movie, "Super Mario Brothers," based on the video game. Every night after the show he sits at his computer until 4 or 5 a.m. writing his own movie, "White Chocolate," about the tensions over different skin colors among Latinos. "America's a strange schizophrenic country," he says. "There's so much discrimination here, and yet it gives you that incredible self-pride. I want to help people see things and change things." As Miggy says, "Spic-tacular!"