REVIEW: John Leguizamo’s back on Broadway in “Latin History for Morons”
They say that history is written by the winners. That might explain the white, male, Euro-centric bend woven into our history textbooks and taught in our schools. That whitewashed presentation of history informs the dearth of equal representation in our media and culture, but the good news is that all this is changing—albeit too slowly, or just not fast enough.
Luckily, a new class is in session at Studio 54, where John Leguizamo’s latest one-man show, “Latin History for Morons”, opened tonight. Mr. Leguizamo, a celebrated actor, comedian, and activist, has forged an identity as one of the nation’s preeminent raconteurs and theatrical diarists of the Latino experience.
“Latin History” marks his sixth one man show—his fourth to play on Broadway—following “Mambo Mouth” (1991), “Spic-O-Rama” (1993), “Freak” (1998), “Sexaholix ... A Love Story” (2002), and “Ghetto Klown” (2011). All have addressed different aspects of being Latino in America through the unique and colorful lens of Mr. Leguizamo’s experience, collectively forming a profanity laced ethnography unlike any other.
“Latin History”—which transfers from a successful run at the Public Theater last spring following a start at Berkeley Rep—follows Mr. Leguizamo’s school-year long quest to help his bullied son on an eighth-grade project to identify a Latino hero he looks up to. We, the audience, are the “morons” mentioned in the title, but so, too, is Mr. Leguizamo, as his son’s prompt makes him realize he doesn’t know enough about his own history. That’s no mistake; it has systematically been made invisible to him, and to us.
Over the course of 95 minutes (really two hours), with chalk, blackboard, and some props, he lightly covers the history of civilizations and conquests in the Americas, from 1,000 B.C. to roughly the 1600s—highlighting Latino military contributions in the U.S.-led wars since—dogged by a realization that there are so many heroes to choose from, though most remain largely unknown, all while gently lampooning historical figures like Moctezuma and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Mr. Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia and raised in Queens, claims Puerto Rican, Italian, and Lebanese ancestry (his estranged father contends they are Colombian), and has described himself as being of Amerindian and Mestizo heritage. Under the direction of Tony Taccone, this play is a highly entertaining exploration of that heritage. At the start, Mr. Leguizamo states:
“Settle down ... we’ve got a lot of work to do here – and very little time. Cause I gotta undo your whole education and the entire way you think. And it’s not gonna be easy cause that shit’s in there deep.”
And he’s right. Our ignorance and misperceptions are ingrained, reinforced daily by the TV, movies, and newspapers we consume. There is no way to cover all of Latin history in one show, and Mr. Leguizamo doesn’t attempt that. Instead, we get enough to serve his larger point, delivered with his singular, wise-ass charmer persona.
A self-titled “Ghetto Scholar”, Mr. Leguizamo’s crass mania, class clown-demeanor, and undeniable street cred lend an engrossing authenticity to his captivating performance as we watch him effortlessly summon a dozen characters on stage. It is refreshing to be seated among a diverse audience in a Broadway house, and to hear the unvarnished perspective of a minority in America actively contending with the violent and oppressive past and present his people face, even as he does so through jokes.
Knowing nods abound in this audience as Mr. Leguizamo shares piercing observations like why it is that Latin art is called “folk art”, while European art is deemed “fine art”; how a Latin man (or woman) can’t get mad in public lest he become the next to be shot or deported; and how the “narcissism of small differences” is weaponized to keep minority groups fighting each other, instead of uniting against their common oppressors.
Structurally, the play is deficient, operating on a single plateaued plane punctuated by Mr. Leguizamo’s repeated and repudiated returns to his son’s bedroom to pawn his latest hero discovery, a rhythm that gets tiresome by the evening’s end. But, that doesn’t really matter. Like many good works of accessible social commentary, “Latin History” succeeds at conveying its message because it is infused with humor, even if bawdy. This play is no jeremiad or strident screed, but, despite its comedy, Mr. Leguizamo—who claims he suffers from both “conquest resentment” and “ghetto rage”—is dead serious.
“Latin life is cheap in America”—he laments. And your heart breaks a little, because you know he is right. But your spine is steeled, too, because we can change that, and that change can be aided by the power of theatre.
Bottom Line: John Leguizamo is back on Broadway in a hilarious and piercing take on the conquest of invisibility that plagues Latin American history; with his singular voice, he teaches some good lessons in “Latin History for Morons”, serving low-brow comedy alongside meaningful, and necessary, social commentary.
“Latin History for Morons”
254 West 54th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 95 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: November 15, 2017
Final Performance: February 25, 2018