Talking Conquests and Comedy with John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone

Tony Taccone and John Leguizamo in the rehearsal room for 'Kiss My Aztec!' Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

During a workshop of Kiss My Aztec! in New York City this March, Artistic Associate and Assistant Dramaturg Katie Craddock huddled up with John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone in a wee writing studio to learn about the inspiration for this show, the political function of comedy, and their creative partnership.

Katie Craddock: John, where did the idea for this piece come from?

John: I wanted to create a space for our Latin stories, in the same humorous way I’d seen on Broadway with shows like Spamalot and in movies like Blackadder. The general public doesn’t know a lot about Aztec history—for instance, the Aztecs had libraries full of extensive codices, but many were burned by colonizers. Erasing history was (and is) a means of controlling a people.

Tony: When we were auditioning actors for this show, it was really depressing to me how many people had the same two or three shows on their résumés. It was a clear reminder of the paucity of Latin work, and it’s horrifying—there’s no established assumption yet that this work should be done. So you find yourself carving a new pathway, and John’s obviously done a brilliant job of insisting on that—in an inviting way. His genius is that he has found a voice and built a comic relationship with people across many backgrounds that wanna hear from him.

John: And Tony’s been my accomplice. I love working with Tony because he’s a beast for storytelling and narrative; there aren’t too many people on the planet as passionate and obsessed about proper storytelling as Tony. Also, he’s half Puerto Rican. That is so exciting for me—I wanna reach in there and grab that Puerto Rican in him, and tell him that he’s okay.

Tony Taccone, co-writer and director of 'Kiss My Aztec!'
Tony Taccone, co-writer and director of ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Tony: That’s a real thing for me. I started unconsciously pursuing Latin work about 15 years ago. Susie [Medak, Berkeley Rep’s managing director] pointed it out—she said, “Do you realize how much Latin work you’re doing? Your dormant Puerto Rican genes are blooming here.” But it was working on Latin History for Morons that drove me to make a conscious effort to examine my past, and actually research it. I went back to my mother and relatives and took their oral histories. It’s part of my heritage that could be lost—I need to recapture it and understand where I’m coming from. The pressure on my mother to assimilate was immense. She’s 92 years old and teaches Spanish to this day, but her upbringing was about trying to get in there with white people to succeed.

John: That’s what happens. I grew up in the hood, and all my friends were Latin and Black, but then when I got to college I was like, “Oh my God, I sound different than everybody, I talk different, I have different vernacular, and slang. I need to un-ghetto myself if I’m gonna succeed. ’Cause obviously I rub people the wrong way, and I just stand out too much.” But then I went to auditions and I’m like, “Wait a minute. They want me to be a gang leader, a drug lord, a janitor, or the killer in the episode.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute! I just went through this whole process of assimilating as hard as I could.” So quickly I learned that it didn’t matter how hard I worked, I would not be cast as lawyers or doctors.

Tony: Is that how your solo shows were born?

John: Absolutely. I thought, “Where are the Latin stories? Why aren’t we anywhere?” I needed to make material for myself. ’Cause I knew we were funny, I knew we were intellectual. I knew we had great stories to tell: present, past. So that became my life’s work. You ask yourself, “Why does this matter? What am I doing to change culture?”

This is a piece you are writing but not performing in. Is that something that you knew early on?

John: No, I was writing it for myself originally, about 10 years ago. It was a play then, not a musical. It wasn’t gaining traction. They said it was “funny, but, Aztecs?” They just didn’t get it. I had a lot of stories like that. Stories about Latin culture had no traction in Hollywood or TV. They just couldn’t get it.

How did you decide to not act in it?

John: Well, when it became a musical I was like, “I’m out.” I mean I’ve got an amazing voice, except for pitch or melody; otherwise you’d love to hear me.

Why did you make it a musical?

John: I think the impetus was Spamalot. The way they turned Holy Grail into a musical made me think, “Wow, maybe I can do that with my Aztec piece.” But then I realized I can’t write music, and started working with Benjamin [Velez] and David [Kamp], who can.

Tony: But the sensibility of a lot of the music comes from John—the comic spirit we’re tapping.

John: And you. Tony wants songs to move the plot forward. When I first started writing the musical I thought songs were like in an opera; they could just reveal the unconscious, or just be about emotion that you didn’t see. But it can’t—

Tony: In a musical you have to keep the momentum. It’s a difficult art form. The many elements have to feed each other…and we are trying to write a nontraditional musical. It’s a crazy new hybrid. There’s more book than usual, and we’re doing this Elizabethan/urban slang combination—this colliding of worlds. ’Cause it’s set in the 16th century.

Cast of 'Kiss My Aztec!'.
Cast of ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

What do you find exciting or useful about that combination of period and modern language?

John: I wanted to create an Elizabethan patois. A Shakespearian language with ghetto slang. I love it in my ear—that juxtaposition. I’ve always loved slang, American vernaculars, and urbanisms. I grew up with that, and love hearing it combined with the Elizabethan language.

Are you hoping bridging that linguistic gap will make people draw parallels between the 16th century and now?

Tony: We never lose the sensibility that we are in the present day watching a theatrical event.The frame of the show breaks the fourth wall; it’s a company of actors saying, “We’re both sharing this same world with all its contradictions, challenges, fucked-up-ness, and beauty. And we are all gonna now look at what happened back in 1540.” We’re always trying to make the audience connect it to their own experience today. A lot of the contradictions and injustices are the same, which is depressing.

John: I mean, yes, things haven’t moved as far as we’d like, but we have to remember that progress is never linear—it goes backwards and forward, it’s not steady.

Tony: Yeah. I’ve only been alive in this period of time, but it seems to me from studying history that—

John: Oh you’re much older than you let on, come on. Didn’t you actually polish Cortés’ helmet?

Tony: What a bastard.

John: Yeah, Tony’s drawing from personal experience when we’re talking about the conquest.

Tony: Exactly. Oh, the horses were brutal. What was I saying?

You were talking about history.

Tony: Right. We tend to fall victim to mini cycles of our experience. Trump is elected, so we think, “Oh my God, there’s been no progress. We’re back to square one.” But that’s not really true historically, as John was saying. There is a war going on now. But our sensibility tends to be dominated by the present moment and we forget that if we look back at history, there’s always a struggle.

John: We progress and we regress.

Tony: It’s an ebb and flow. But hopefully the ebb doesn’t take us so far back that we can’t return from it.

On that rather dark note—this piece is full of outrageous humor, but it’s about a murderous oppression and attempted erasure of a people. It’s relentlessly silly, but makes powerful assertions about identity and resilience. Why is it important for you to be telling this dark story with humor?

John Leguizamo, conceiver and writer of 'Kiss My Aztec!'
John Leguizamo, conceiver and writer of ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

John: That’s how I grew up, so that’s my sensibility. I had a very difficult upbringing, and humor was the thing that saved me and my family. And I think part of why I grew up that way is a consequence of the conquest. Like when I even look at some of the violent games that we played in Queens—Hot Peas and Butter, Manhunt, and Knuckles—they’re all games brought on from the conquest. There was such abuse of people, and abuse of families and children. So, I wanted to create this dark world, but also assert that there’s always hope. No matter how dark it is, no matter who the president is, and how much he’s trying to destroy decency and respect of others, it’s still a great time where women are rising in power and Latin people are getting their due. We elected many women, including Latina women, into office in the midterms. A lot of great things are happening even in this darkness.

Tony: That’s a perfect answer, John. The more personal answer for me is that I was the class clown because I had a massive speech impediment. I could not talk in complete sentences until I was in seventh grade. Being funny was the way out—the way to be liked. So I married that personal experience to a worldview. I realized comedy could invite people to look past their own prejudices, and that became part of my aesthetic. Look at Dario Fo—an amazing, political Italian comic who won the Nobel Prize [in 1997 because he “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”]. Read his acceptance speech—it was very controversial that a clown won the fucking Nobel Prize, but he was a major political thinker using comedy to make people pay attention.

Tell me about the show’s range of musical genres.

John: We wanted a broad bandwidth of Latin music—the salsa, Latin freestyle, merengue, reggaeton, cumbia, as many of the beautiful aspects of Latin music as we could squeeze in, and the dances that come with them. We even throw a tango in there. Our music is everywhere these days. Cardi B is Dominican, and she’s the highest selling female rapper in the world. You got Bruno Mars, he’s Puerto Rican, and he’s doing the pop thing. And then you got Camila Cabello, she’s Cuban and she’s doing a more Latin R&B sound. Latin music goes everywhere, and so that’s what we try to cover, though it’s impossible to completely achieve—the A to Z of Latin music.

What are each of your favorite genres of Latinx music?

John: There are many styles that I love, but in particular la Sonora Matancera. They’re a Cuban/Afro-Cuban group that started in the 1920s—they made Cuban music that permeated Latin America. They were incredible crooners and wrote beautiful love songs.

Tony: Salsa, ’cause of my mom. Tito Puente was my mother’s cousin.

John: No! Oh my God, you’re illustrious.

What would your mothers think of this show?

Tony: Well, our mothers get along famously. My mother loves everything I do because I’m doing it.

John: I’ve been a huge pain in my mom’s ass trying to get her to understand the culture she came from, to help her understand her indigenous roots. Every time she sees my pieces, she learns something about herself and the culture she came from, and it’s great ’cause then she influences her friends.

Which character in the show do you most identify with?

John: It’s gotta be Pepe; he’s the artist saying, “Look, we matter, we count.”

Tony: Yeah, it’s the guy who’s trying to be funny and popular, but he’s doing all the wrong things.

John: We don’t win at basketball, we don’t win at football, we don’t win all the fights, but hey, we’re funny and interesting.

The world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! is now playing through July 14 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets can be purchased online.

This interview, written by Artistic Associate and Assistant Dramaturg Katie Craddock, was originally published in the program for this show.