Latin History for Morons: Know Your History
John Leguizamo is at it again. Giving us a laugh inducing class of performance mastery but this time it is in two different categories. The first is as expected. He wow’s us with his comic characterizations and high energy Latin beat dance moves, giving us a master class in the art of putting on a one man personal storytelling show. This time though, he has added a new category, a history lesson in the guise of a quasi-professor man with chalkboard et al.. He wants to lecture us on the history of the Latinos. It’s a chapter that the American history books has left out and forgotten to teach at school and he confesses his shame that he knows so little about the contributions of his people. And when he finds himself unable to help out his son who is in dire need of a hero, Leguizamo, as writer and solo performer, takes it upon himself to learn about the history of the original Americans; the people who lived here before this land was ‘discovered”. It truly is a lesson not only he or his son needs, but one we all need to hear, and it couldn’t be delivered as funny with such a big dose of heart by anyone else but this incomparable performer.
In a classroom designed by Rachel Hauck (set designer: Tiny Beautiful Things), Leguizamo is surrounded by history books and a large school blackboard (lighting design: Alexander V. Nichols). It is clear that at this moment in our nation’s history, this lesson on the original Americans is more important than ever. As directed by Tony Taccone (Bridge and Tunnel, Wishful Drinking), the current political scenario is not ignored; hilariously commented on here and there, but this wildman history teacher persona crafted by Leguizamo sometimes lets the historical details get a bit lost in his energetic story telling. He rarely lets the important sentiment or the key points travel to far out of focus, but I wondered if I was actually taking in as much as I wanted to learn. As Leguizamo has done so skillfully in his numerous other one man shows, namely Mambo Mouth (Obie Award and an Outer Critics Award, 1991), Spic-o-rama (Drama Desk Award and four Cable ACE Awards, 1993), Sexaholix… A Love Story (2002), and Ghetto Clown (Outer Critics Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award both for Outstanding Solo Performance, 2011), he manages to layer one on top of another meaningful and important discussions on race and intolerance. It’s all skillfully done with a huge dash of humor and heart, sprinkled with Latin music (original music and sound design: Bray Poor) and dance moves, leaving us, and him, a wee bit breathless. He isn’t the young highflying soloist I saw back in 1998 in the Emmy and Tony Award nominated Freak (Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show), but he’s no slouch either.
A great commentator and impersonator, although sometimes not so politically correct (some may wince, while others, including myself, will just laugh), he manages to take us through 3000 years in the Americas. On this wild historical ride, he tries to teach us about the Native Americans, the Taínos, the Incas and the Aztecs, all while trying to help his son gain some power and strength within his own heritage and history. The core story is both achingly personal and relatable, with varying degrees of warmth and simplicity. Sometimes it feels a tad bit on the light side and unfocused, but the personal drive is always present and highly functional. Quick references that are thrown in here and there from his familial history resonate while also being hilarious. He still has that way about him. He can tell you a quick aside that is both deeply powerful and ridiculously funny, all within the same beat. We get schooled as he tries to school himself so he can help his son find a hero to call his own. The ending, although not surprising, is very touching and simply sweet. Leguizamo’s edge might be not as sharp as his previous explosive and foul-mouthed explorations of racial tensions in American, but Latin History for Morons is a deeply thoughtful story, told by a father who is trying to grow up while also trying to raise his children better than he himself was. This is what makes America great to be honest, not false claims and exaggerated promises, but to see a Latin man, who many would try to call an immigrant, learn that he has more right to be here than those that want to call him and his son names. Those name-callers, like Trump, are the true decedents of illegal immigrants in American, not the ones who were here before. Columbus is no hero in my world, nor is he one in Leguizamo’s. But we certainly learn about a few imperfect ones in his Latin History class given by an imperfect master for all of us morons.