For “Latin History for Morons,” John Leguizamo has come up with a sixth solo show that will be in many ways familiar to his fans , with its mix of in-your-face jokes, spot-on mimicry, candid memoir, energetic dance breaks. But it is also a timely cultural and political critique, suggesting what could become a new direction for the talented performer.
“Latin History for Morons,” Leguizamo tells us, was inspired by an incident involving his son, an eighth grader, who was bullied by a racist classmate. Leguizamo tries to support his son: Think of the bully as sandpaper, he says — irritating at the moment, sure, but “you end up polished; he ends up useless.” That doesn’t help. Then he talks to the classmate’s father – who is just as much a bully, boasting of his family’s long line of military heroes, including Andrew Jackson.
So Leguizamo embarks on a mission to learn enough about the history of Latinos to instill pride in his son. The problem – Latinos have been the target of 500 years of bullying.
The family story is both funny and affecting and it gives something of a structure to the 90-minute piece. But it is only one of the three levels of the show. The second is Leguizamo’s relaying nuggets of actual Latino history, which are often engaging, and the third is Leguizamo’s assumption of a kind of Dr. Irwin Corey mock-professorial persona, which is often entertaining, and sometimes undermining. The show begins with Leguizamo entering the stage at the Public Theater in an ill-fitting tweedy jacket and vest like a high school history teacher, carrying a cardboard box of supplies. Greeting the audience applause, his first words are: “Settle down.” The set is a classroom, complete with piles of books, and focused on a chalk board. He writes the title of the show, and he draws a timeline, that begins at 1,000 B.C. – “we have the Mayans” – and ends at Now – “we have Pitbull.” (A Cuban-American rapper, for those who only know about the Mayans.) And that, Leguizamo says, is all that most people know about Latino history.
One need not be a history buff to be fascinated by some of what he fills in for us.
He tells us, for example, about the Repatriation Act of 1930 – the mass deportation between 1929 and 1936 of some 500,000 Mexican immigrants and American citizens of Mexican origin, from the United States to Mexico.
At its best, “Latin History for Morons” lives up to the promise of its title. The success of the “Dummies” and “Idiots” book series, after all, lies in the promise of relaying basic information thoroughly but clearly and with some humor to somebody who doesn’t necessarily have any prior knowledge of the subject. Leguizamo delivers.
As if afraid to bore his audience, however, Leguizamo sprinkles the history with jokes. Some of them are smart: “Why is all our art called ‘folk art’? And all European art’s called ‘fine art’? And then ‘modern art’ is just our folk art gentrified.” Some of them are dumb: “Conquistadors were like a NBA player at a Kardashian pool party.”
Some are a missed opportunity: “As the great Spanish philosopher Santana said, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” He is of course deliberately confusing Carlos Santana – the Mexican-American guitarist – with George Santayana, the Spanish-born, U.S.-educated philosopher. He has no time to tell us about someone like Santayana, a remarkable scholar. He is busy impersonating one Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban-born woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight for the Confederate side in the Civil War. It would be unrealistic to expect a self-declared “Ghetto Klown” (the title of his last solo show, on Broadway in 2011) to forego the chance to don a big red wig and mince. And it may be that his most devoted fans would be disappointed without these anarchic comic touches, skirting with the stereotypes that I commented on in my very first review of a Leguizamo show, “Mambo Mouth,” his breakthrough piece, back in 1991.
Rather than condemn John Leguizamo for repeating what has worked for him in the past, then, I will remember “Latin History for Morons” as the piece that showed us the extraordinary possibilities when such a brilliant theater artist takes on the world in a new way.
Latin History for Morons
Written and performed by John Leguizamo
Directed by Tony Taccone
Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck
Lighting Design: Alexander V. Nichols
Original Music and Sound Design: Bray Poor
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Ticket prices: $65
Running through April 23