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Latin History for Morons

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 27, 2017

John Leguizamo
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's rarely fun to have your intelligence demeaned, but you may not mind the way John Leguizamo does it. To help you out, and maybe make you feel a bit better (I said maybe), he's titled his new one-man play at The Public Theater Latin History for Morons, so you'll never have a doubt as to what you're in for. You, sir or madam, are (probably) a moron when it comes to the contributions Latinos have made to the United States and the world, so the promise runs, and this is where you'll get the education you need. Well, sort of.

Like many of Leguizamo's solo shows, particularly those of more recent vintage (most notably Freak from 1998, Sexaholix... a love story from 2001, and Ghetto Klown from 2011), he's determined to land the comedy and family material well before he doles out the enlightenment. There are benefits to this approach, of course, and Leguizamo has mined them, largely successfully, in his previous work by finding a capable point of balance between the message and his no-holds-barred delivery. Here, though, the alchemy is rather less sure.

The story behind the story is that of his young son, who is working on a yearlong school project defining, researching, and ultimately presenting someone he considers a hero. Too bad Latinos don't have any heroes to call their own, though; if they've been left out of history books, television, and movies, there must be a reason, right? That's all the excuse Leguizamo needs to begin his own crusade to discover the truth about the prominent Latinos that have long been a mystery even to him.

In the process of scouring various resources, he discovers much of what's been left out of (excised from?) the official record. From the Aztecs and the Incas to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Latinos have a long and colorful history of stories, not all of it happy, but all of it rich and primed to cast new light on an often-neglected, but important, group for the U.S. and the western world. And that's light he's going to shed on his son (and daughter and wife and the father of the boy who keeps bullying his son) whether or not anyone wants it.

On a set (designed by Rachel Hauck) that depicts an underfunded classroom, with his primary prop being a two-sided blackboard and an arsenal of different-colored wedges of chalk, Leguizamo imparts all the crucial information with his usual unpredictable flair and boisterous irreverence. He cycles through an entire catalog of popular Latin dances in one scene (declaring between gasps for air upon its conclusion that he's too old for this bit like those he did in his earlier outings), he uses his grown-out hair to transform into a bizarre succession of classical figures (most notably, President Andrew Jackson), and transforms his writing into its own bizarre interpretive language, featuring words like "Greex" and "sifilis" ("Only people who've had syphilis know how it's spelled," he explains).

John Leguizamo
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's a compelling idea, and one that would seem an ideal match for the creativity and energy Leguizamo brings to all his pieces. But this time, he has trouble aligning craft and content. His impersonations only have clarity and affection when they're for his family members (all of whom he makes distinct, and distinctly silly, but unfailingly real), whereas the few historical people have the whiff of tired caricature that, unlike in his other shows, isn't leavened by a sufficient amount of time for us to get to recognize, know, and love them. Much of the time, it's as though you're watching the History Channel only by skipping back and forth between Discovery and FX.

Even more problematically, most of the occurrences he lists are neither fresh nor helpful to his cause. The tale of Hernán Cortés's defeat of Moctezuma II will not be unknown to many likely to see Latin History For Morons; nor, for that matter, will at least a general understanding of the Incas and their fate at the hands of Francisco Pizarro. But those "lessons" constitute much of the running time. The third and last is, admittedly, more significant: Loreta Velázquez, who was born in Cuba and masqueraded as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, and Leguizamo gleefully recounts her behavior in the show's choicest segment. Still, her contributions to the overall narrative, like those that precede them, are of questionable value; they're more inspired as entertainment than they are inspiring.

The cumulative effect is, in fact, somewhat depressing, and you may not come away with a drastically improved opinion of the role Latinos have played in our own evolution over the last several hundred years. Many interesting avenues are mentioned briefly but not explored in depth, such as the valor they displayed and the decorations they received in wars in which they fought. Leguizamo does address this, but not convincingly; the garden-variety uplifting solution he deploys instead for his finale is a stretch and not believable (which is especially unfortunate if it actually happened), and defuses a lot of the evening's explosive potential. Could the boy who was so desperate to find a hero really have so few options? That can't be the intended lesson, can it?

Then again, the moral—if any—is mighty clouded by some of what Leguizamo makes explicit. He unquestioningly cites as a major source for his studies Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, an account of America's inception and upbringing that is aggressively controversial for the scope of its political treatment of the topic, and favorably name-checks revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara, who are as renowned by some for their passionate struggles as they are reviled by others for the towering body counts they racked up. Rest assured, however, that there's one man he's proudly unwilling to consider for the honor he wants to bestow: Ted Cruz.

Some beliefs are a bridge too far as far as hero consideration, I guess—whatever. But it's emblematic of the issues at foot that a large number of better answers are not readily forwarded. Leguizamo may not reinforce the fiction that led to his thesis, but he doesn't rebut (or supplement) it strongly enough to make Latin History for Morons live up to its title.

Latin History for Morons
Through April 23
The Public Theater Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: